Wednesday, Feb 23, 2022

Setting the Example to Overcome an Ongoing Challenge in Gender Equity

Liz PorterHealth Group President, Leidos

HLTH Foundation

I’ve been the Health Group President at Leidos for nearly two years. While I had a wealth of experience leveraging my engineering background, I have learned a tremendous amount about health and the health industry. What has struck me is that health and engineering share a similar challenge: gender parity in leadership.

While you see more women in engineering leadership than you did five years ago, only 22% of the executive leaders across the industry are women, according to McKinsey & Company’s 2021 “Women in the Workplace” report.

The report indicates that the same challenge appears to exist in health fields. Despite 74% of the entry-level workforce in healthcare systems and services being women, only 28% of the executive leaders in the same industry are women. 

When I was in college about 30 years ago, working on a degree in electrical engineering, there were a handful of women including me in my class. We naturally stuck together, clearly outliers at the time, and we have continued to work on paving the way for a new generation of women engineers.

I recently went to a conference to discuss current trends in the healthcare industry. I had a moment of déjà vu – only a handful of women were in the room, and we all found ourselves sitting together. Most of those women were junior partners at their organization. 

We have to do better. 

Advice for Aspiring Women in STEM…and the Leaders that Employ Women

I’d like to offer some advice to women in health and to the current leaders of health organizations ready to tackle gender parity in the workplace.

1. Women: Seek out and accept mentors and sponsors.

As women, it’s easy to feel like we have to prove ourselves in the workplace and rely only on ourselves. But it’s important to have mentors to be a sounding board and offer counsel when you face the tough moments in your career. It’s also critical to find sponsors who will advocate for you and your career growth and journey. Be willing to seek out and ask professionals you admire to mentor or sponsor you. On the flip side, be willing to accept mentorship and sponsorship when it’s offered to you.

Having a professional support system is crucial for career growth, whatever that looks like for you.

2. Leaders: Assess your succession planning and consider changing your talent management strategy.

At Leidos, we actively work on succession planning and on empowering our team members to have the career journey that matches up with their individual goals and the stage of life they’re in. I challenge organizations to seek new ways to identify diverse talent and actively work to develop them, promoting mentorship and sponsorship to raise up that talent. 

3. Women: Own your voice and know you add value.

Early in my career, I was fortunate to have a tremendous support system and the gumption to speak up. But I know many young women who may hold back or be uncertain about sharing their ideas. Find your own source of strength and confidence. Know that your contribution to your team and within your organization is valuable. Be courageous enough to take on tough assignments or roles when offered and learn everything you can in any job. That seat at the table is yours—own it.  

4. Leaders: Look at the diversity of your teams and be willing to go beyond diversity to inclusion. 

Diversity of thought, background, ideas—true diversity—can make dramatic changes, not just incremental ones. As an executive, I can attest that we’ve seen incredible value in taking the time to be mindful and intentional about how we value our people. We know true diversity among our workforce leads to positive, lasting change, but our value goes beyond diversity to inclusion. At Leidos, that means we work to foster a sense of belonging, we welcome all perspectives and contributions, and we provide equal access to opportunities and resources for everyone. 

5. Women: Emulate what you hope to achieve.

If every woman in a STEM field—regardless of career level—actively mentored or sponsored another woman earlier in her career, what change could we achieve? I wholeheartedly believe we would see greater numbers of women staying in STEM fields and joining leadership ranks. I also think we could inspire a new generation to join us. Don’t just find a mentor and sponsor for yourself; seek out a colleague or student you can help, too. We can lead by influence without leading by title.

6. Leaders: Be the leader you wish you had at the start of your career.

We’ve likely all worked under good leaders and ineffective ones. Remember the qualities of the leaders that inspired you and those that didn’t, this will help to shape your own leadership approach and how it will impact those you lead. I’d offer that as leaders in the health industry, we must encourage and support our employees to encourage and support each other. Make mentorship and sponsorship required activities, put a real emphasis on succession planning, and be fully committed to a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Let’s set the example now. Because if we do, I believe the numbers will change, the gaps will close, and challenges like gender parity will be resolved. 

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