Promoting women’s leadership in healthcare plays a significant role in improving enabling and inclusive policies in the sector. Even though women make up 71% of the worldwide health care workforce, they are disproportionately underrepresented in top leadership positions in the industry. Their involvement in senior and executive leadership varies by nation, location and employment in the public or private sectors.
Women make up approximately half of the qualified health workforce, according to the 68th round (2011–2012) of the National Sample Survey’s report on employment in India. Furthermore, women make up one-third of all health professionals in the country, resulting in an estimated seven female health workers for every 10,000 people. Women have traditionally been seen to comprise the majority of the workforce in care professions such as nursing and midwives (80%) and doctors (30%) in the country. ILO estimates suggest that in India, women in the health workforce earn 34% less than men. The gender pay gap at entry level and mid-career can widen over time and have an impact on retention, especially for mid-career women. As per WHO, even though the healthcare workforce in India is distributed equally between men (50.76%) and women (49.24%), women in leadership roles in the healthcare sector are few and they are five times more likely to experience setbacks, even while experiencing similar early career advancements as men.
Evidence suggests that women leaders support and implement policies that invest more in education, health and social services. Women leaders are key to inspiring women and girls around the world. Research in India has shown that as a result of establishing female quotas for leaders on the village council, there were multi sectoral co-benefits that followed, including more women/girls engaged in informal employment outside the household, elimination of the gender gap in adolescent education, and increases in girls’ and women’s aspirations.
To understand how institutions can be more proactive in driving change and creating a culture that fosters leadership and growth for women professionals, WomenLift Health and LEAD at Krea University are conducting a qualitative study to understand the perspectives of important health institutions and their leaders to understand opportunities and challenges for women’s leadership in health institutions in the country and efforts that can be taken at an organisational and policy level to address these challenges.
Emergent findings from the study showcase key barriers to women’s upward mobility in the health sector which includes societal conditioning and the burden of unpaid care work, organisational politics, mobility issues, and lack of technical skills. Some key policy and organisational measures that have enabled better participation of women in the healthcare sector and in leadership roles include maternity and paternity leave policies, prevention of workplace sexual harassment, and mentorship support and hybrid or flexible working options. Several reasons have been identified to act as barriers to women aspiring and rising to top level leadership positions within the healthcare industry. These can broadly be clubbed under the following categories:
- Societal Norms: male and female doctors in their early careers advance comparably, but women are five times more likely to experience job interruptions due to family obligations, which in turn has a significant negative influence on career advancement.
- Organisational Barriers: A certain degree of “imposter syndrome” has resulted among women (IFC, 2019) due to lack of support from leadership teams or through mentorship or role modelling.
The above-mentioned barriers can be navigated through strong leadership training and structured mentorship. Organisational leadership training and development programs that are centred on maximising capability have shown both short- and long-term benefits for the progress of women in leadership, especially in the healthcare industry. Supporting women through formal, structured mentorship as well as informal, unstructured mentoring increases their chances of obtaining senior positions across all industries, including the healthcare industry (Pololi, 2016). Inclusion of women in executive-level healthcare teams has advantages, such as democratic decision making processes, innovative, empathetic leadership that is believed to enhance collaboration and improve communications (McDonagh et al.,2014; Mehta, 2022). Strong Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies embedded in both public and private institutions in healthcare would go a long way in ensuring inclusion of women in decision making roles, thereby causing a ripple effect of women-friendly and growth oriented policymaking.
The views expressed are the author’s own.