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Removing the Glass Ceiling in Health IT

July 21, 2016
by Heather Landi
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Industry surveys indicate there is a gender-based pay gap in health IT and women are underrepresented in executive leadership roles. What are industry leaders and organizations doing to address this crucial issue?
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Information technology (health IT) in healthcare delivery organizations, stemming from objectives such as meaningful use attestation as well as population health and data analytics initiatives, has resulted in a corresponding demand for a skilled health IT workforce. And it stands to reason that in order to attract and retain experienced and talented IT professionals, organizations need to offer competitive compensation and career pathways that can lead to senior and executive roles.

However, this past March, the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) published findings from its December 2015 Compensation Survey that pointed to a notable gender-based pay gap within health IT, which suggests women health IT professionals are being marginalized in this sector. Based on a survey of 1,900 respondents, the findings indicated that men had a higher average compensation at $126,000 compared to women at $101,000. When looking at the data from the perspective of full-time employment, according to the study findings, men earned an average of $124,000 annually, while their female counterparts earned $100,000.

“When analyzing the data by organization level and tenure, there are two sets of concerning findings. In nonexecutive and non-senior managerial roles, the first year compensation for females in non-executive and non-senior managerial roles tends to be 80 percent of what their male peers make. Over time, compensation tends to increase for both genders in this segment. However, females never reach parity,” wrote the authors of the HIMSS white paper, titled “Gender-Based IT Pay Inequity and the Impact of the Clinical IT Executive in the Health Sector.”

And, even more troubling, when examining the compensation data according to respondents in executive and senior managerial roles, the survey findings indicated that the first year compensation for women tends to be 63 percent of what their male peers earned.

“In this segment, it takes 15-plus years of women being in such roles to reach parity,” wrote the authors of the HIMSS white paper.

The HIMSS compensation survey also pointed to gender gaps in access to senior management and executive leadership roles within health IT. Of the respondents, only 10 percent of women represented senior managerial roles compared to 19 percent of men. And the findings indicate even greater disparity as it relates to executive management roles—only 3.6 percent of women reported being in such roles compared to almost 12 percent of men.

Beyond the compensation inequities, gender-based disparities in advancement can impact an organization’s ability to attract and retain the best health IT workforce. So, the question for health IT and healthcare delivery organization leaders is what can be done to address these inequities and drive positive action at the departmental and organizational levels?

“We need to be willing to be open about this problem,” says Sue Schade, interim CIO at University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio. Increasingly, published studies and surveys, such as the HIMSS compensation survey, help to cast light on these issues, which sparks conversations and, ultimately, more problem-solving discussions at individual organizations. Senior managers and executives at every healthcare delivery organization can begin to proactively address the issue by looking at their compensation practices, Schade says.

“If you are management within an organization and you make decisions around pay, you need to be looking very seriously at the gender equity in terms of your staff,” says Schade, who has more than 30 years of experience in healthcare IT management and is a founding advisor of Next Wave Health Advisors, a Huntsville, Texas-based consulting, coaching and interim management services company.

Susan Heichert, senior vice president and CIO of the Minneapolis-based Allina Hospitals and Clinics, agrees, noting that organizational leaders need to examine salary data and take corrective action. “You need to understand how you got there in the first place and work with your human resources (HR) team to employ strategies to make sure it’s not happening.”

Susan Heichert

Currently, there is not enough corrective action occurring at this foundational level to level the playing field for women both in current positions and promoting positions, according to Rebecca Quammen, founder and CEO of Quammen Health Care Consultants. “I have witnessed a situation recently in which a woman taking a management position through an internal promotion was not being offered equivalent pay to her predecessor male counterpart, who just left the position. When all variables except gender are the same, then the question of how much to pay should become mute.”

While there has been progress with women increasingly rising to prominent positions within the healthcare C-suite—CNO, CFO, COO, CIO and even CEO—the problem, Quammen notes, is that “these numbers are still too few for the industry to feel a shift in organizational cultures that promote female diversity in numbers reaching advancement and pay equality.”

“Workforce diversity continues to be a current debate; even today the balance of traditional Caucasian males holding positions to all other ethnicities and genders is significantly tilted,” she says.