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Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Healthcare

There are often many barriers in place that keep women from reaching the top of their given profession, and that can certainly be said of the healthcare industry. Women have a strong representation in many of the various fields within healthcare, but are disproportionately misrepresented at the top. How do those numbers break down, and more importantly, what can be done about it?


In this next article of our Women in Medical Imaging series we look at of all those employed in the healthcare industry, what percentage are female.

Any guesses? You’ll find out just a little bit later.

But first let’s take a look at some specific occupations, including medical imaging.

Miss the first article in the Women in Medical Imaging series? Check it out here.


If we consider “traditional gender roles” and what we may have personally observed in healthcare facilities, it’s probably not surprising that in the United States there are more male physicians and more female nurses. One of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)’ CPS Tables (11. Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity) states that in 2016, 38.2% of physicians and surgeons were female and 90% of registered nurses were female.

Although the above statistics may not be that shocking, the gender breakdown for other specific healthcare occupations may not be as expected.

Pop Quiz Time

Q. True or False? Since there are more male physicians in the U.S., there must also be significantly more male med school graduates.
A. False. According to statistics provided by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2015 there were 18,705 graduates from medical school: 8,907 were female and 9,798 were male (47.6% versus 52.4%).

Q. True or False? There are more females than males working in medical imaging.
A. True. According to the BLS’s CPS Table 11, 73% of diagnostic related technologists and technicians were women in 2016. (Diagnostic related technologists includes cardiovascular technologists and technicians, diagnostic medical sonographers, nuclear medicine technologists, radiologic technologists and magnetic resonance imaging technologists.)

Q. True or False? There are more male physical therapists and occupational therapists than female in the United States.
A. False. According to the BLS’s CPS Table 11, in 2016, 69.3% of physical therapists and 89.2% of occupational therapists were female.

Here is a listing of some of the healthcare occupations where there is a higher proportion of female employees than male.

Occupation % of employed that are Women (for the year 2016)
Dietitians and nutritionists 89.4%
Pharmacists 59.9%
Physician assistants 70.0%
Occupational therapists 89.2%
Physical therapists 69.3%
Respiratory therapists 73.5%
Speech-language pathologists 97.5%
Veterinarians 63.2%
Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses 90.0%
Registered nurses 90.0%
Nurse practitioners 94.0%
Diagnostic related technologists and technicians 73.0%
Medical records and health information technicians 92.1%
Opticians, dispensing 69.7%

(To view the entire BLS table where this data is found ( detailing gender, race and ethnicity by occupation) visit: https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.pdf)

More Females work in Healthcare … BUT what about at the Top?

It’s clear that female employees make up a large portion of the healthcare industry. In fact according to the BLS’ CPS Table 11, 75.6% of ‘healthcare practitioners and technical occupations’ are filled by females in the United States.

Unfortunately female representation at the highest level of the healthcare industry does not compare. “Women represent just 26% of hospital CEO positions despite holding 75% of healthcare jobs,” states Maria Castellucci in her “C-suite gender gap” article (published in Modern Healthcare on February 25, 2017.)

Fortune Magazine’s Sy Mukherjee points out a similar disparity, noting that among the “Fortune 500 health care firms, only 21% of executives and board members are women.”

In 2015, Halle Tecco from Rock Health notes, “At Thomson Reuters 100 Top Hospitals, women make up 27% of hospital boards, and 34% of leadership teams,” adding that at 10 of the hospitals there are female CEOs. And, in 2014, Advisory Board’s editor Dan Diamond shares slightly more promising figures with 40% of healthcare executives being female, but that’s based on 80% of the entire health workforce being female.

Why is there a significantly lower proportion of women that occupy the C-suite (the highest executive roles) in healthcare?

“Societal stereotypes and cultural norms can continue to remain stubborn barriers standing in the way of faster progress, experts say,” writes Castellucci in her Modern Healthcare piece. These clichéd conventions can be felt by female professionals as well as healthcare employers.

When women do not see female role models at higher levels this reinforces the idea that they will not have a shot at an executive position; plus those in charge of hiring may hold the bias that a female worker is busy having and raising kids and has no desire or time to rise to the level of CEO (although “women still carry the brunt of caregiving responsibilities for children and elderly parents,” notes Castellucci.)

Past patterns can perpetuate future ones. “Too often, leaders end up ‘prizing someone similar to them’ when assembling a team and picking a replacement,” adds Diamond, editor of the Advisory Board.

There are concerted efforts being done to overcome these patterns of women being passed up for executive positions. For example a number of  healthcare organizations, like the Carolinas HealthCare System and TeamHealth, are running women executive development and mentorship programs. Healthcare employers that do recognize the fact that diversity throughout the workforce, at every level, is key,  and are making conscious efforts to interview and consider women for every single leadership position that becomes available. These need to become regular practices across the board.

In her Modern Healthcare article, Castellucci quotes the CEO of Carilion Clinic in Virginia, Nancy Howell Agee, who “has sat on boards of various not-for-profit organizations” and encourages women to “venture out and speak up.” She’s quoted as saying, “My advice is raise your hand and say, ‘I can make a difference.’ ”


Bureau of Labor Statistics – CPS Table 11 (Employed persons by detailed occupation)
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation – Distribution of Medical School Graduates by Gender
Modern Healthcare – C-suite gender gap
Fortune Magazine – The Healthcare Industry’s Gender Gape
Rock Health – The State of Women in Healthcare
Advisory Board – Women make up …

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