The health-care field boasts an impressive number of women in its workforce—nationally, the profession is 73 percent female. These women are doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, techs, assistants, and therapists. But in the C-suite? Just 18 percent are women, according to a report released last year from San Francisco–based Rock Health, a seed accelerator for digital health startups.
Denver’s hospitals, however, buck that trend: Until a few months ago, seven of the area’s 24 large medical centers had women at the helm. At HealthOne, the largest health-care system in metro Denver, five of seven hospitals have female CEOs. Across the board, these women say their appointments were simply the result of being best suited for the job.
“Denver is chosen by ambitious people,” says Maureen McDonald, a HealthOne board member. “It’s one of those markets where people who could get a job anywhere move.”
The respectable number of female hospital CEOs in Denver parallels the Fortune 500 list, which in 2012 included more firms than ever—18—led by female CEOs. In general, women have been successful in health care; unfortunately, many still hit a glass ceiling when it comes to the top job. Lack of self-confidence, time constraints, and limited access to senior leadership are the top three impediments, according to Rock Health’s study.
Denver’s female hospital CEOs, however, clearly aren’t lacking in assertiveness. Case in point: Dr. Patricia Gabow, the former CEO of Denver Health who retired in September 2012, is known for walking into the office of Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and asking him to release her hospital from city ownership. And it worked.
Last April, Sylvia Young became president and CEO of the HCA-HealthOne regional network of Denver hospitals. Nine CEOs report to Young, a mother of two. “Sylvia was my boss twice,” says Jennifer Alderfer, CEO of Thornton-based North Suburban Medical Center. “I appreciated being able to observe how she prioritized her family over work.”
While few of the female CEOs in Denver’s hospitals are medical doctors, Gabow says her clinical background kept her connected to the job during her nearly 20-year run. “You don’t have to be a doctor to do these roles,” she says, “but it has been very useful to me. In medical school, I was one of five women out of 125. You don’t have to change who or what you are to succeed.”