Women in Health Care Leadership: Telling Stories to Change The Story

Our 2019 Annual Meeting featured a break-out session on Women in Health Care Leadership. Hillary Wolfley, health data analyst at Vermont Program for Quality in Health Care, led the workshop. She kicked off a panel discussion on women leaders’ stories by telling a story of her own.
“After going to McGill—which was a very woke campus, where we had discussions about gender equity and other issues—I moved back to the US and the first woman presidential candidate lost,” she said. She mentioned indicators that our country was getting a significant wake-up call at the time—the #metoo movement, 3.5 to 5.5 million women attending the Women’s March just in the U.S. and others.
She then turned to women’s equity in health care, noting that:
n  In Vermont, only two of the hospital CEO positions are currently held by women
n  In the US, women hold only 13 percent of CEO positions in hospitals and only 30 percent of all C-suite positions.
This inequity is happening despite women making 80 percent of the buying decisions in health care and 65 percent of health care workers being women, she noted.
Wolfly then introduced the panel—which she called the “statistical minority”—four women leaders in health care who told stories of their journeys.
Vicky Loner, CEO of OneCareVT, told how she went from what she called a “slow income” background to her leadership position. You have to be “very patient with the process and very persistent,” she said.
“I’ve taken a lot of risks,” she reported. “It always feels the same, like asking yourself, ‘Why would I want to feel uncomfortable?’ But every risk feels a little bit better.”
She told of the risk she took when first entering state government. After being offered a deputy commissionership which she felt ill-prepared for, she learned to focus on the skills she possessed.
“It was a really valuable lesson—Instead of thinking about why I should say no, I have to think about why I should say yes,” she related, adding that the commissioner who offered her the position helped bolster her confidence.
She also credits her 13-year-old daughter with giving her support during her most recent risk—putting her name in the hat to be the CEO of OneCareVT.
“During those days, she kept reminding me of why I should push myself forward,” Loner recounted. “When I had made it into the second round of interviews, she said ‘Mom, that’s so amazing. I want to tell you something first. You know in soccer, when you make it to the semi-finals, you’re so excited. If you lose, you’re disappointed . . . But when you make it to the finals and get your butt kicked, it’s hard! You’re going to cry and that’s okay. And it’s going to be an ugly cry. But I’ll be there for you,’ she told me. That’s how I knew I had to push forward.”
Judy Peterson, CEO of University of Vermont Health Network Home Health and Hospice, also credits her leadership qualities to taking risks. After graduating from the University of Vermont with a nursing degree, she joined the Peace Corps.
“I graduated in May, and in July, I flew to Central America,” she said. “I spent most of my time in Costa Rica—which still has very rural, impoverished areas. It was a very life-changing experience. Here I was a brand new-graduated nurse, and I was now the head nurse of a rural health clinic. Rather than me being supported by a lot of people around me as I was in school, now people depended on me,” she stated.
“I remember having internal conversations with myself, saying, ‘They think I know something!’ You have to fake it till you make it—rise to the occasion,” she advised.
“The other thing that comes with self-confidence is really hard work,” Peterson noted. “And I was doing it all in a foreign language! When I came home [from the Peace Corps], I felt like I was a person who could make change. I could make a positive difference in others’ lives. Coaching, skills building—those are things I still do now,” she reported.
Kat McGraw, chief medical officer and chief information officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital (BMH), kicked off her story by recalling growing up in rural Minnesota, which her wife says makes her “Minnesota-nice” and ‘”unnaturally optimistic.” Enticed by the variety of course offerings in college, she got her degree without prerequisites she’d need to go to medical school. She went to grad school instead and received her Master’s degree, but still felt the pull of medicine.
“I gave a paper in DC and stayed with a friend who was doing her residency. At the end of the day, we would talk about our work and I found myself insanely jealous of her work [with AIDS patients]. I learned then that education is a tool for me to use, not just a path you take to finish,” she said. She went back to school and took the courses she needed to eventually enter medical school.
She later helped found several community health organizations before starting her job at BMH. She gave advice about becoming a leader.
“Start things,” she said. “Moving your vision forward is possible if you do it. Everything was started by somebody. Why not you?”
Her ten biggest pieces of advice ended as follows:
“Number three—do what you love—this road is hard and you won’t get there without your heart. Number two: there’s no such thing as unnaturally optimistic. It’s called a belief in yourself and it keeps you going. And number one—be Minnesota nice—it is a thing.”
Like the others, Jill Berry Bowen, CEO of Northwestern Medical Center, recalled a tough upbringing as a farm girl. She said she remembers gaining confidence and learning to take risks while riding through uncertain paths on her horse, not knowing what they’d find and yet being surprised and delighted in what they came across.
Eventually, she became a nurse and said she learned a lot from a position she held early in life at a long-term care facility.
“I was a critical care nurse. What could long term care teach me? A lot!” she exclaimed. “You’re in there as head nurse. There’s no physician and it’s you providing direction and oversight, coaching and mentoring and helping the adults in that nursing home lead the best life,” she related.
She also had advice for women (and men) about becoming leaders.
“In this journey, it’s really about believing in yourself,” she explained. “Say ‘yes’ before you think you’re ready to say ‘yes’ because you can! Believe in yourself. Be passionate. Be relentless. We have one life. Pour yourself into it. If you give, it will come back to you tenfold,” she added.
The breakout ended with an interactive exercise led by Tiff Bluemle, director of Change The Story VT (CTS)—an initiative that is focused on advancing gender equity, particularly the economic opportunities for women in the state of Vermont. Bluemle said the organization’s charge was two-fold.
“We’re generating awareness that we’re not done with this [gender equity] work and we’re developing new allies to push forth and develop gender equity in the conversations we have at the State House and in our conversations at home, in schools, etc.,” she expressed.
She introduced the exercise by telling the panel, “Changing the story in part requires telling our stories. That’s what you’ve done. You are rock stars. I’m a [health care] groupie! Telling these stories can be very inspiring. It can also be very enlightening—helping us not to feel so alone, to validate some of the things we have felt or experienced. And perhaps to teach us something about people we thought we knew,” she said.
In order to facilitate conversation, CTS developed what we call “Let’s Talk Gender” cards.
“These cards can be helpful in getting us to reflect a little on our experiences about how gender informs our workforces, families and communities and organizations,” Bluemle explained.
Bluemele gave each participant at the breakout a deck of cards, and the participants broke into small groups to ponder questions such as “Does your gender inform the way you exercise leadership? Do you think our culture prefers a male leadership style, a female one or both? What messages did you receive early on about money and work? Were those messages influenced by gender?”
The conversations were lively and highly personal.
Breakout participant Megan Peek, director of community relations & health promotion at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Vermont, said, “The conversation cards created the perfect jumping off point for talking about important issues that are often hard to get at quickly in a group situation. It was a truly inspiring conversation!”
If you are interested in Change The Story VT or would like some “Let’s Talk Gender” cards of your own, visit