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Optimism runs high for women leaders across Houston’s healthcare sector

Special Report: Women healthcare executives

By Jess Ferdinand and Sally Ramsay

Whether you’re an early careerist or senior executive, a physician or an accountant, the women we spoke with concur: Houston seems to be one of the best places for women to achieve leadership status in a healthcare career. While we were encouraged, we wanted to know what was driving this optimism, because women across the country still lag behind men in pay for the same job and in attaining promotions that will place them in leadership roles. There are also fewer role models and mentors for women leaders. What is it that makes women across Houston’s health care sector excited about the future? And equally as important, can these factors be shared beyond the Bayou City?

One of the most innovative and successful programs in advancing women in leadership in medicine is the Women Faculty Programs at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Established in 2007 and led by Elizabeth L. Travis, Ph.D., FASTRO, associate vice president, the program has delivered steady improvement in the number of female physician and scientist leaders across the institution. In 2007, women held fifteen percent of positions at the department chair level and up. In 2013 that number rose to 27 percent.

The Women Faculty Programs is committed to recruiting, advancing and retaining a diverse faculty of women by: ensuring women are not inadvertently disadvantaged in the workplace, providing career development and mentoring programs, nominating women faculty for awards, conducting annual reviews of faculty salaries and hosting women physicians and scientists for lectures. Dr. Travis identified the change of one policy as pivotal to the program’s success, “All institutional search committees are required to have at least one woman and one minority participating on them.” It took one year to implement, but the results have placed MD Anderson far above benchmarks for women leaders at medical schools across the U.S.

Paule Anne Lewis, chief executive officer of San Jose Clinic, sees women as increasingly and uniquely qualified to serve as leaders across the healthcare sector. She is highly encouraged by the women she sees coming out of undergraduate and graduate level programs. “These women are aggressive in how they approach their careers and what they want to accomplish. They get it.”

San Jose Clinic, the original safety-net clinic in Houston, which has steadfastly grown into a leading provider of quality healthcare services for those in our community who struggle the most with accessing care, employs 49 paid staff, 44 of which are women. Lewis attributes the number of women on her team to the growing number of female leaders throughout Houston that serve as role models for young women pursuing careers in healthcare.

She stresses that women need to take advantage of resources such as the American Leadership Forum and Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association that are available to help women build their skills and networks. Joining a committee or gaining a board position of a professional group or nonprofit are also great ways to build connections and an executive presence.

Denise Castillo-Rhodes, executive vicepresident, and CFO Texas Medical Center agrees that today, more so than in the past, women have the opportunity to advance to senior leadership positions whether it be in academics, administration or the board room. She noted that, “As more women advance in these fields, women should work to spend time mentoring the generation behind them. We need to make it our mission to encourage and advance young women to study STEM fields and to understand that they cannot give up.”

Dr. Cindy Cedillo, a chief resident at Baylor College of Medicine has found great support in charting her career through the institution’s formal mentoring program, active alumnae network and many willing mentors among senior faculty. She also cites Baylor’s commitment to providing opportunities for underrepresented minority students and the efforts of James L. Phillips, M.D., senior associate dean, Baylor College of Medicine.

While significant progress has been made in providing and achieving leadership opportunities for women in the Houston healthcare sector, there are still significant strides to be made. In the meantime, we’ve gathered some of the top tips for women anxious to pave their own path.

Top tips for achieving leadership status:

Optimize your social capital.
Identify and seek out mentors who can advise you and enhance your network. Look up from your desk and engage in both formal and informal networking. The more people you know the more opportunities will become available.

Have an opinion and mean it.
Don’t second guess yourself or add disclaimers that dilute your opinion and reputation. Seeming tentative erodes confidence in a person’s decision-making abilities. Invest in your education and intellectual capital.

Just ask.
Dr. Travis’ father was fond of saying, “They might say yes or they might say no, but if you don’t ask you will never know.” And that is the case when it comes to lobbying for a position or promotion, negotiating a salary, seeking the advice of a mentor or asking for an introduction.

Do it your way.
Don’t feel pressure to conform to a more male leadership model. Women and men have different life experiences and bring different perspectives. Having both can broaden an organization’s approach and appeal.

Get the support you need.
Elicit the support of your family, peers, professors and leaders. While women have made progress, they still shoulder the majority of childcare and household responsibilities. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to “do it all” by yourself. ▼