To Move the Needle on Gender Parity, Execs Must Admit Bias

I have received my fair share of terrible career advice through the years. Oftentimes, this bad advice came from well-meaning yet misinformed (mostly male) colleagues, who may not have meant any harm, but they didn't realize that their comments and career counsel actually weren't very helpful.

Whether I was encouraged to downplay my role as a working mother or told the only way to effectively broker business deals was on the golf course instead of in the boardroom, these antiquated suggestions were shared with me as ordinary and standard practices for success.

I'll admit that early in my career, I believed some of it. When people would ask me why I thought I did so well in business, I'd say, “I work hard…plus, I'm an awesome golfer,” which gave me access to (mostly male) dealmakers. I was successful because I learned how business gets done, and that often meant learning to act like one of the guys.

See also: Healthcare agencies not immune to gender bias, parity issues

With experience and maturity, I've come to realize that much of what I was taught about how women should behave to succeed in business was simply old-fashioned nonsense. Along with working with less-than-positive role models, I've also worked with many exemplary male and female mentors and leaders who were supportive and proactive about embracing the changing workforce, and who understood the business value of fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

There's no denying that conversations about gender bias and discrimination are having a moment in the spotlight. The good news: The CEO gap has been slowly closing at major public firms, with the number of female CEOs among S&P 500 companies steadily increasing over the last eight years. Today, there are 27 female CEOs in the index, up from 21 in 2015. While the S&P 500 now claims a 5.4% share of female CEOs (up from 4.2% last year), clearly, there's still plenty of work to be done to achieve true gender parity.

Most — if not all — companies today have initiatives to help women achieve greater visibility and rise to leadership roles. Whether it's KPIs tied to compensation or mentoring programs aimed at nurturing the next generation of female leaders, helping women succeed increasingly has become mission critical for businesses. Yet, despite all of the programs in place, the needle on gender parity still hasn't moved much.

See also: Healthcare marketers still pushing to address the gender gap

Because I've spent my career working on the marketing side of healthcare, I appreciate how segmentation can deliver insights to help solve problems like the lack of gender diversity in our industry. Effective marketing, after all, is about identifying motivators that change behavior, then using an evidence-based approach to affect change. There's little debate over why there should be more gender parity in business, and certainly there's been much discussion about what should be done. It's how we can make real change that gets people stuck.

We know that gaining a true understanding of the journey that a woman goes through in her career is critically important. Male leaders need to walk a mile in the shoes of top-performing females to uncover how to support and develop women's skills to get them to the next level. Organizations need to consider how many of their existing programs aimed at developing female leaders are focused on understanding their unique experiences versus simply trying to achieve a balanced scorecard.

According to an analysis from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, 19% of C-suite executives today are female, a slight increase from 17% in 2015. Yet, even though women make up 46% of the entry-level workforce, only a few (if any) ever make it to the C-Suite. The high drop-off rate in a woman's journey from entry level to executive leadership can be attributed to the double-whammy of lack of access to and lack of visibility with senior leadership. Indeed, as men rise through the corporate ranks, they report greater access and visibility to senior leadership, while the opposite is true for women.

When it comes to healthcare, women make 80% of all healthcare decisions, according to the Department of Labor, so it stands to reason that the healthcare industry would want to address this important and powerful group—and healthcare companies should reflect a proportionally higher number of women in leadership roles within their organizations.

See also: How to get more women in the C-suite, according to IPG, Unilever, and AOL

So what are barriers for women working in healthcare? I believe there are two dynamics at play: First, whether or not we want to say it out loud, unconscious bias persists. While my personal experience working in healthcare has been largely positive, I know that gender bias is real, and unpacking the hidden and unconscious biases that exist within our industry requires more than mere lip service to address them.

Second, and arguably a more potent challenge, is some leaders' inability (or lack of desire) to tackle tough conversations about themselves and address how things have been done in the past. In some ways, we are stuck in processes and ideas from a bygone era when only (mostly white) men occupied corner offices. Patterns of working that have been established for generations can't simply be undone by sheer force of will. They require a deliberate approach and strategic action plan to solve the problem. Although we talk about change, we often don't go beyond cursory programs to affect real change in organizations.

Although it took time for me to see that there are different paths that women can take on the road to success — blazed by previous generations of forward-thinking female and male leaders — I'm committed to helping the current and next generation of rising female leaders know that there isn't just one way or one path to success, and that they don't need to wait another 15 years in their careers to find the right path for themselves and help to move the needle forward.


Michelle Keefe is group president at Publicis Health. She was named to the MM&M Hall of Femme in 2016. 

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