In the traditionally male-dominated world of healthcare, one organization is taking pragmatic steps to bring together the brightest and sharpest thinkers to bring about gender parity.

Laurie Cooke is President and CEO of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA), a global nonprofit organization comprised of individuals and organizations from across the healthcare industry.

As a dedicated advocate for gender parity, Cooke has served in senior roles in companies and across the globe. As such, she has witnessed very real differences in organizational culture and gender behaviors.

Realization Of Cultural—And Gender Difference

Recently moved to the U.K., Cooke knew, back in the day, that different cultural environments needed careful navigation. Cooke expands: “Culturally, being from the U.S., I was overly energetic and enthusiastic compared to my U.K. colleagues. And that’s great to be. However, I didn’t know about the need to understand how things get done at work; how to find the route through the organization.”

Alongside this was Cooke’s own immense desire to please, to be valuable and to be useful. “I would take on anything asked of me—and volunteer for the rest. I was a great resource for the bosses but I never spoke up and said what I wanted and needed in return. And no one asked. I simply took on more.”

Looking back, this lack of voice was—and still is—common in women. With no female role models at the time, Cooke is not surprised she behaved as she did.

On the other hand, men were more comfortable with and confident in the internal workings of firms. The qualities held up and admired were what we today view as more masculine traits: “good leadership was what we now refer to as male leadership.” Empathy was not a core trait of the male leader back then.

However, for Cooke, empathy was one of her strengths. However, as she comments now, real leadership skill is balancing empathy with performance clarity. “As a leader you need to care, and show you care, but also that you are trying to move the team or an individual forward.” This realization has helped male colleagues to now feel able to become more empathetic.

So, what has Cooke learned along the way that she would pass on to younger women today?

  • Surround yourself with different perspectives—and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Join a professional association or build a personal board, to support you to find alternative ways of looking at things.  
  • Learn about networking. Networking outside the organization is commonplace, but people forget to do this internally. Get yourself known outside your department. Volunteer for projects that have executive visibility. Make connections.
  • Mentorship is good. Sponsorship is great. Get a mentor and a sponsor—and be sure to deliver. Start mentoring others and support their own career journey as soon as possible.
  • Speak up and say what you want. Articulate what you want and those experiences and opportunities you’re looking for—and share these with your boss and colleagues so they’re engaged.
  • Ask for candid and constructive feedback. Knowing your goals and getting clear feedback on “skills gaps” allows you to move forward in your career faster.
  • Know your value. When you take on extra work or get a promotion, be sure to get something in return, be it extra resources, title adjustment or a pay rise.

Building Of The Tribe

All of Cooke’s advice makes sense. And yet, women starting out simply don’t know this stuff (although men somehow seem to). The drive for parity between the genders is supported through organizations such as the HBA, headed up by Cooke. It is committed to achieving gender parity in leadership positions and enabling firms to realize the full potential of their female talent.

The challenge, Cooke says, is “not fixing women but fixing the environment in which women are in. It’s all about the talent pipeline.”

As an organization, the HBA is growing rapidly. With 60,000 members in 50 countries, it set up the Gender Parity Collective. This is a group of 16 companies wholly committed to sharing which practices work and which don’t work in making progress to gender parity.

And it’s effective.

In the two years since its inception, those in the Collective have, on average, 12% more women at all levels of leadership than the industry benchmark.

Diverse Talent Strategy

It is clear that buy-in and demonstrated support of the senior leadership team is crucial to gender parity progress. As is robust measurement to benchmark and track progress. However, perhaps more important is the acceptance of—and commitment to eliminate—unconscious bias.

Hiring, developing and retaining a more diverse and gender equal workforce requires a rethink of each aspect of talent management practice.

Critical Touchpoints for Review

  • Check on the words used in the job description. Eliminate gender-biased terminology and access software support to do this.
  • Set expectations for gender balance candidate slates.
  • Consider the candidate assessments used for unintended adverse impact.
  • Check on the make-up of the interview panel for diversity.
  • Nominate a listener to spot potential bias in interviews and promotion meetings.
  • Measure candidate completion and drop-out rates every step of the way.
  • Review how managers are incentivized to create gender balanced teams.
  •  Once hired, mentor, sponsor and support.
  • Transparently track and monitor gender diversity progress.

Cooke sums up: “I know real change can happen. It takes place when we share what we know and also the actions that have been proven to make the difference.”

Let’s take action.


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