Women promise new tide for health IT

Time to say farewell stereotypes: Hello gender parity

In health IT, it's a man's world.

Although women account for more than 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, they hold a paltry 25 percent of senior health IT roles nationwide. Don't get used to this trend, however, say female industry leaders who are working to make the realm of information technology more accessible to women. 

Map of Women in Senior health information technology rolesAfter analyzing more than 3,000 health IT positions nationwide – such as chief information officers and vice presidents of IT – Healthcare IT News found that 75 percent are occupied by men. 

Although data from the U.S. Department of Labor finds that the number of women holding various IT positions across all industries is significantly lower – estimated at 17 percent – 25 percent of women in senior health IT roles, to many in the industry, is still no number meriting celebration. 

"I don't think it's an acceptable number," says Lucy Sanders, chief executive officer and co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology – especially considering that computer science and informatics is one of the fastest growing professions in terms of employment opportunity.  

Sanders, a self-described "raging technologist," earned her graduate degree in computer science in the '70s and then went to work for Bell Labs. Since her early days in IT, she says in many ways the environment has worsened for women – attributing the biggest culprit to stereotyping and societal bias from women and men alike. "Computing was a new discipline (in the '70s), and there weren't perhaps as many stereotypes about who's good at it and who's not," says Sanders. 

[See also: Top 10 women powerhouses in health IT.]

Bureau of Labor statistics report that in 1991 women held 36 percent of IT positions; in 2009, they held 25 percent. The issue here is not about men versus women; rather, it's about eliminating any barrier or notion that may hinder women; it pertains to gender parity, adds Sanders. "I'm a big believer that both men and women can excel in the same way."

Health IT luminaries reflect

Pamela Arora, CIO at Children's Medical Center in Dallas, agrees. "Innovation doesn't know gender boundaries," she says. Arora and her team of some 350 IT staff have achieved Stage 7 on the HIMSS Analytics EMR Adoption Model – putting the center among only 1.8 percent of U.S. hospitals earning this distinction. Under Arora, Children's Medical has also been listed as one of the 'Most Wired' hospitals in the nation by Hospitals & Health Networks.

Before coming to Children's Medical, Arora held a CIO position at Perot Systems – recently acquired by Dell – for 13 years. In her health IT position now, she sees more females. Adds Arora, "If you take others seriously, you get taken seriously." 

Other leading women in health IT don't entirely agree with Arora's sentiments, however.

Jayne Bassler, CIO and senior vice president of the 2,247-bed Florida Hospital, one of the largest not-for-profit healthcare providers in the country, says when leaving the walls of her organization, she has experienced what it's like not be taken seriously. "I feel at times maybe viewed more as a showpiece, a voice, but not really as somebody who brings substance to the table." Bassler says it's not an everyday occurrence, but when working with non-EHR vendors in the technical space, she has noticed a difference.

Bassler and her team, however, have proved to be far from any showpiece. Under her leadership, four hospitals have reached Stage 6 and 7 on the HIMSS Analytics EMRAM scale.

Despite her achievements in the CIO position, Bassler says information technology was not her original plan. She started out as a critical care nurse, and only when Florida Hospital was slated to replace its EHR with a more integrated platform nearly nine years ago was she asked to move into an IT role as project head. "To be honest when I got tapped on the shoulder, I thought they were insane," says Bassler. 

Now, her thoughts have assumed a different form. Although she has only worked with one other female holding a senior leadership role throughout her career, Bassler says in many ways women moving into IT have many advantages. "What I believe the strength that I have – and I do associate a fair amount of it with being female – is I tend to have the ability to bring people together," she says. 

From her role, she has observed that oftentimes men may tend to operate from a command-and-control position for driving competitiveness, and that's just not her style. "I feel like I've been able to accomplish significant things by taking a different approach of bringing parties together in a team dynamic that honors and respects everybody's role." 

Sarah Shelburne, former CIO of Ogden Regional Medical Center in Utah – one of the states reporting the lowest percentage of women in health IT at less than 10 percent – says she has also experienced negative attitudes toward her position in health IT. She observed this when vendors or contractors were coming in to meet with her. "It's very subtle," she adds. "Many were very surprised that I was in the role that I was in."