On what is believed to be the first all-female panel in the more than 40 years of AHA annual meetings, leaders discussed various obstacles to women in the C-suite. Examples ranged from the familiar salary-negotiation issue — “Aim high and do not discount yourself, or others will discount you” said Christina Campos, administrator at Guadalupe County Hospital — to more nuanced concepts, such as executive presence — “How do you share your story so others are willing to listen?” said Phyllis Wingate, president of the Carolinas HealthCare System NorthEast. The panel also included Mary Blunt, corporate vice president at Sentara Healthcare, and Bea Grause, R.N., president and CEO, Healthcare Association of New York State.

Wingate suggested a three-step solution for tackling bias in hiring. It starts on a societal level, she said, by developing a shared understanding and shared values, through conversation and platforms such as the AHA annual meeting.

Next, at the institutional level, “we have to build programs and structures and tools that are enablers for people, that will enable them to move forward,” she said. Wingate cited her own career as an example: she began her journey in executive management development at the Hospital Corporation of America as part of its women-and-minority recruitment effort. “It was a bridge to get a young, African American woman some grooming in corporate hospital administration,” she said. Without that bridge, she noted, she “wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Lastly, individuals need to be ready when opportunities come knocking. But in addition to education, training and work experience, women often have added considerations. “I think we don’t talk enough about balancing our professional goals with our personal goals,” Wingate said. “[Often we ask] ‘do I have to give up motherhood to have a career?’ No, you don’t. I think those conversations are important to have so that you reduce the internal conflict and you can step forward when opportunities present themselves.”

When panelists were asked what they would tell their younger selves as they began their careers, Bea Grause, R.N., president and CEO of Healthcare Association of New York State, said she wished she wouldn’t have been so critical of herself early on. “I felt like had to have it all together in order to make that leap [to management]. Women often set these high expectations for themselves, while in reality, “you can figure it out as you go along.”