Representation does actually matter and—in the healthcare space—the C-suite needs to represent the larger public health community more accurately by employing Black women.
Diversity (a term often flippantly thrown around without nuance) has a significant and tangible impact on the populations represented by it. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry’s current landscape of top executives does not adequately represent the population it aims to cater to. Whether it stems from elitism, sexism, or even just a lack of mentorship opportunities, the healthcare C-suite undoubtedly lacks women of color in board positions. Alongside the fact that most Black women in the healthcare sector are actually overrepresented in the toughest and lowest-paying positions, this disparity is alarming overall.
Janette Dill—an associate professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota—conducted a study where researchers observed that Black women are 23% more likely to work in the healthcare field than other groups. However, we are more likely to work in areas such as nursing homes and long-term care settings, which also happen to have higher rates of workplace-related injuries. Nevertheless, although most Black women work in physically demanding, labor-intensive areas of healthcare, their paychecks often do not reflect that work. The study additionally revealed that higher-paying roles within healthcare are difficult for Black women to get.
In a cross-sectional study conducted by the Leverage Network, researchers found that, on average, 87% of C-suite board members were white—meaning usually just 13% are people of color. This study included 623 board members across 41 of the largest healthcare organizations. To no one’s surprise, the Leverage Network also found that an overwhelming 72% of members were men, while only three percent were Black women. Among that three percent, not a single Black woman was a healthcare CEO. In 2020, the issue remained at large, with only 8% of hospital executives leaders being Black.
Overall, these disparities are direct reflections of a significant problem. Racism has a deep impact on health, and those who least understand structural racism should not encompass the majority of executive influencers of public health. That severely undermines the people most affected by their public health decisions. Increasing workplace healthcare workforce diversity has been proven to improve access and quality for minority patients, eventually leading to better health outcomes and stronger health systems.
As we all engage in this dialogue, it is important to, at minimum, raise two questions: What are the specific barriers limiting Black women from these roles? What are some solutions to counteract these barriers?
One barrier that prevents Black women from entering C-suite roles is reduced access to resources and opportunities. According to Lynne Richardson—MD professor and Vice Chair of Emergency Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai—“exclusionary or word of mouth hiring” prevents women of color from rising through the ranks in medicine and public health. Higher-level hiring is often achieved through networking, which can be restrictive if those networks do not include women of color. Simultaneously, the lack of mentorship availability in these career spaces worsens this issue.
Additional barriers include overcoming negative bias, distinguishing constructive criticism from discrimination, and finding role models. The issue spans well beyond medicine and public health, creeping into the adjacent biopharmaceutical and biotechnology fields as well. The same disparities are observed in these career areas, where racial board diversity is little to none. In the biotech space, there seems to be some improvement in gender diversity, but no improvement in the racial diversity of women. The same trend goes for pharmaceutical companies; in 2018, there was a decrease in board seats held by Black women while white women comprised 95% of the board members.
Thankfully, there are already some initiatives currently attempting to combat this problem. Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City has developed a program titled “Black Women Leaders Connect” that aims to improve the number of Black women in executive leadership positions. With a focus on increasing recruitment, they hope to elevate more Black women into executive healthcare roles. Programs like this are merely first steps—but the work needs to start somewhere. Purposefully creating spaces where Black leaders can grow within their organization only benefits those organizations, as well as the public as a whole. Additional solutions involve offering women of color visiting professorships and creating a database of women of color in the public health field, among other possibilities.
Healthcare leaders are a reflection of the community and patients they serve. Current solutions to correct the discrepancy between Black healthcare workers and leaders at varying levels of the field are not astronomical—but, they are small steps that can still have a tremendous impact on the healthcare system today. Inequalities in C-Suite need to be addressed in order for underrepresented communities to have an equitable chance at caring for their health and their health being cared for.
Enjoyed this read? Support The Prosp(a)rity Project and our writers by liking and sharing this post. Don't forget to leave your thoughts in the comments down below!
Chelsea Lenora White, Introducing the 2021 All Black Women Health Care Administration Graduates of TSU
The Leverage Network, Inequity starts the top