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." 

Shelburne also recalls going to executive meetings being the only female in the room, which initially proved intimidating. "For a woman to be a good CIO –  because it is predominantly male – they can't be afraid to speak up and know that their opinions do matter," says Shelburne. Under her leadership, the hospital attested to Stage 1 meaningful use and executed a huge refresh on all IT equipment, 13 data closets and implemented sweeping changes to nursing documentation. 

Five best states for senior health IT roles held by womenShelburne says she prefers the clinical side of healthcare and has since left IT. According to a report conducted by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, an estimated 56 percent of women also leave their IT jobs mid-career, with 31 percent of them switching to non-IT positions. That's more than double the rate of men leaving. 

That's not the case for Susan Heichert, CIO and senior vice president of the 11-hospital Allina Health in Minneapolis. "I've always been a gadget person," says Heichert, who has worked in IT for 30 years now. "I really looked at IT as the opportunity to take tools and solve some of the issues that I saw every day that impacted literally life-and death-situations," she explains. 

Heichert's background is in pediatrics and intensive care. When you see a child's health deteriorate due to a lack of information, it has a powerful impact on you, she adds. "I love being in a space where I'm a solution provider." 

[See also: EHR at heart of Allina's $100M quest for innovation.]

Although Heichert hasn't experienced any difficulty with being heard, she acknowledges the deeper issue in need of redeeming. "When I go to industry meetings or CIO get-togethers, there's a lot of men in the room." 

At Allina, however, Heichert's leadership team is evenly split between men and women. "It makes for a good healthy debate," she added. This team balance has helped earn the health system a Stage 6 status on the HIMSS Analytics EMRAM model for Einstein Medical Center. Heichert and her team are also in the middle of implementing a big lab rollout. Under her leadership, the health system is just finishing attesting to Stage 1 (year 2) of meaningful use for its hospitals and eligible providers.  

Fixing the pipeline

Information technology is "the best career you can have," opines Sanders, who currently devotes her efforts to encouraging young women to pursue the field. One of her organization's initiatives aimed at remedying the pipeline problems provides scholarships and support to high school-aged girls on their achievements relating to information technology. Since its 2007 inception, more than 2,300 young women have been inducted. 

Moreover, despite the concerning numbers overall of women in IT – women account for approximately 12 percent of all bachelor's degrees in computer science and informatics – many institutions have reported marked success.

In 2011, Harvard announced a record number of women (25 percent) declaring computer science majors. M.I.T., Stanford, Harvey Mudd College and Carnegie Mellon also have reported steady increases over the years, and the percent of female computer science majors at the University of Colorado at Boulder has more than doubled since 2007. 

Shattering the glass ceiling 

In addition to the pipeline problem, part of the solution really comes down to ditching stereotypes that have for far too long distorted women's perceptions. 

In a March interview with NPR's Renee Montagne, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and outspoken proponent for women in leadership roles, commented on the dearth of women in IT. "What's holding women back in computer science is the exact same thing ... that's holding women back in leadership," she said. Sandberg cited numerous studies conducted in recent years finding that females score lower on math tests when they indicate their gender. "Stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore, girls don't do well at math, and it self-perpetuates." 

Innovation, however, requires a shattering of these stereotypes, adds Sanders. "Diversity of thought is really important, because if you leave out a whole gender in terms of what their ideas are, technically for great innovation, great products and services and great advances in healthcare IT, if you completely leave them out of the design process, you're going to miss something." 

And these aren't just vacuous words, proponents say; there's plenty of evidence to support the idea that women bring big things to a company's bottom line. 

A 2004 study conducted by Catalyst, for example, examined senior management at 353 Fortune 500 companies. Companies with a greater number of women on senior management teams saw on average a 35.1 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders. 

"Think about healthcare IT," Sanders adds, "You can work in an area where you can change the lives of millions of people in a positive way. I think women have to be at that design table."

Offering encouragement to young women considering the field of health IT, Shelburne shares this: "Somebody once told me, 'you have been asked to sit at the table. You weren't just asked on a whim; you had many qualifications to get yourself there ... You have the opportunity to sit at this table, to speak up, to make changes, to be able to implement things that you think are appropriate and will help out the patients."

Others reiterate Shelburne's encouragement. Out of the eight different senior leaders Bassler's worked with throughout her career, only one was female, but that didn't stop her from exceling in her position, from bringing her game face each and every day. "You create your own fate," she says. "Come into it with the belief system that (you) can accomplish and (you) can be in the same type of role."

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