Gender & Public Sector Careers: How Are They Connected?

The representation of women in healthcare and public policy-related leadership positions is predictably unimpressive: according to Ernst & Young Global Limited, “Only five countries in the G20 have over a third or more women in senior leadership roles across the public sector.  Canada (45.9%), Australia (39.2%), South Africa (38.1%), the United Kingdom (36.2%) and Brazil (33.8%)…”  Because the statistics for women in leadership is so low for this field, it is perhaps justified to put out a call-to-action for women to enter the profession in droves: especially since so many public health concerns affect women, specifically.  

Career Routes in Healthcare

One possible way in is for women to go into business for themselves.  They can do so if they are a certified family nurse practitioner—in which case they would have the opportunity to become an entrepreneur and own their own practice or clinic, sidestepping the issue of applying for a promotion or rising in the ranks, entirely.  There are a number of retail clinics springing up in pharmacies and grocery stores, nation-wide.  Part of the reason for this is that it is a more affordable model than the traditional visit to a doctor’s office.  It’s also more convenient, since there’s no need to make an appointment beforehand; the time usually spent in a waiting room, therefore, is virtually eliminated.

There’s also the possibility of assuming a role as an intrapreneurentrepreneur within an organization, which may be a good stepping stone if you’d like to try out a leadership or policy-related position, while still acting as a supporting member of a facility or team.  The main difference between the two roles comes down to who makes the final decisions, in regards to purchasing or policy matters.  Considering the demand for health care professionals, particularly in medical areas (such as women’s health care and midwifery, it is also interesting to note that many women have expressed their interest in having appreciate other women in these rolesproviding thse services.  By entering into health care work, women can work towards a goal of social entrepreneurship, which  Nursing World defines social entrepreneurship as an approach that involves the design and implementation of innovative ideas and practical models for achieving a social good—this end goal contrasts quite dramatically from the traditional business approach concerned with profits and the proverbial bottom line.

Career Routes in Public Policy

If you’re interested in influencing public healthcare policy more directly, at a legislative level, a career as a public administrator is a good bet route for affecting change on a palpable macro- level.  President Obama did a lot to affectcontributed greatly to the improvement of public access to health care through his public policy reforms with the passing of the Affordable Care Act, which helped to insure provide health insurance to  20 million more people from 2010 to 2016—a historic reduction in the number of uninsured people, in the U.S.  Similarly, Public public administrators can help implement public health programs like Let’s Move, a program that educates children about exercise and nutritious food, in an effort to end childhood obesity.  

In fact, Burden Lundgren argued that  points out the ways that the most important tool reason for health improvements—concerning mortality rates, for example—was direct government action.  He gives the example of sanitation systems, which were built to prevent waterborne illnesses.  There were also housing codes and occupational safety laws put into place, along with health care standards like state licensure for medical professionals and hospital regulations.  

A few of the most common health issues that affect women include teen pregnancy, heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory conditions, and diabetes.  There’s also the newly-common issue of prescription drug abuse and overdose, which are a risk for almost half the population—45 percent, to be exact, or about 119 million U.S. citizens age twelve and over (the number of people currently taking prescription psychotherapeutic drugs).  By becoming a public administrator, women can help tackle these issues by incorporating a gender framework which is often missing from public policy analysis.

Steps toward Gender Equity

Global Government Forum recently published an article about progress made toward closing the gender gap among top government officials in the UK.  This only happened after Lord Gus O’Donnell introduced metrics and targets regarding the number of women, proportionally-speaking, among highly ranking officials.  UK officials reported that the main reason for progress, in terms of gender equity, was strong leadership and specific tools to measure what constitutes an effective leader: good listeners, for example, in addition to people with strong speaking skills.  This is consistent with the fact that progress towards closing the gender gap was only made after Lord Gus O’Donnell introduced metrics and targets regarding the number of women, proportionally-speaking, among highly ranking officials.

In addition to increasing the number of female leaders in the public sector, the new leadership standards and awareness also made leadership positions more attractive to female applicants.  This increased interest in those positions also helped to increase the gender parity, in terms of numbers of applications and eventual representation. However, these improvements have not resolved the gender gap.  The depressing data provided by the Center for American Progress, indicates that enforcement of more equitable gender representation may be necessary: according to the Center for American Progress, women account for 78.4 percent of the labor force in health care and social assistance but only 14.6 percent of executive officers and 12.4 percent of board directors.  

Encouragingly, however, Debrah Lee Charatan reports, via Entrepreneur, that “Women make up 34.4 percent of senior executive services (SES) in the federal government compared with 14.6 percent of senior leadership roles in the private sector.”  This statistic is at least a bit more encouraging, despite the fact that there’s still a while long way to go before the percentages are as balanced as they could be.  

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If you’d like to assume a leadership position in the public sector, perhaps move to Canada?  All joking aside, it’s becoming apparent that men must lead the movement for change to level the playing field and hire more women into positions of power, since men are often the ones in charge on hiring boards and at the executive level: as Barry Ostrowsky argues, “Diverse boards and executive teams are crucial to the long-term success of a corporation in today’s market,” in part because corporate boards with more women perform better, financially, than those that don’t.  

Then there’s also equity for equity’s sake—which seems like the higher cause, at the end of the proverbialthe day.  That seems like reason enough, to me.  If you are a woman interested in public policy, I highly recommend pursuing your goals.  At the very least, you will have helped be by being present as another woman in the room.  We need all the representation we can get.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Boise, Idaho

I write. I also play the piano and sing along, go for hikes in & out of town, and I'm the host of "The Poetry Show!" every Sunday on Radio Boise, KRBX 89.9 / 93.5 FM. Follow me on Twitter @TPS_on_KRBX.

Daphne Stanford is a writer of many things: poetry, creative nonfiction, and songs for vox & piano.

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