Men and women are different. I know, that’s not earth-shattering news. But as simple as that statement is, it is also a profound reality. Men and women are different. That’s why it’s still news when a woman is the first to do something. It’s forever linked to those who break a specific barrier or glass ceiling. It’s why Kamala Harris will never be known simply as the 49th vice president. She’ll always be the first female vice president.

Did you know that in the senior living industry, women hold almost 70 percent of senior management positions? That’s significantly more than in the US labor force as a whole. Why do women hold more senior positions in our industry? I believe it’s because 4 out of 5 senior living employees are female. But only about 17.5 percent of the CEOs in the largest senior living providers are women, which is similar to the numbers in the national workforce. Which led me to wonder why we’re not seeing more female CEOs in our industry given the number in senior management. I don’t have all the answers to explain this, but I think leadership visibility is one factor.

I’m willing to take the long view here. I believe that if we can see it, we can believe it. And when we believe it, we change it.

Women Are Different

Every discussion about women as leaders mentions their soft skills. Women are perceived as more empathetic, caring, nurturing, and compassionate. These are the skills we’ve learned from the cradle. Girls are taught to be nice, boys are rewarded for engaging in contests with one another.  While our culture is slowly changing, it’s still true that male leaders often have a competitive edge. Women, on the other hand, are praised for their soft skills, their team focus, their ability to create empowered communities.

More importantly, when women lead, there’s a more pronounced emphasis on diversity and inclusivity. And female leadership combined with diversity and inclusivity leads to a 30 percent revenue increase per employee according to a 2017 Deloitte study. The bottom line is that female leadership is good for a company’s bottom line. But putting women into the top leadership roles won’t happen overnight.

More Voices = New Ideas

Brookdale Senior Living has taken notice of the powerful impact of female leaders. It’s one reason their board is now half women and half men. The result, according to Executive Vice President of Community and Field Operations Mary Sue Patchett is that the mixed gender board has changed the conversation because there are more conversations where everyone doesn’t agree.

Lack of agreement on everything, I believe, is crucial to success. More often than not, new ideas are born out of these types of conversations. Someone says “What if….” and that leads someone else to contribute another new thought. We’re more creative when we’re not engaged in yet another bland conversation.

But changing the paradigm means stepping out of our comfort zones.

I Am Remarkable

#IAmRemarkable is a Google initiative to empower women and other underrepresented groups in the workplace. From workshops to self-paced classes, this program has helped women see that their accomplishments don’t speak for themselves. If we want to be effective leaders, we must learn to speak up, to raise our hand, and to step up.

During a panel at Ziegler’s 2021 Women in Senior Living Leadership Forum,  both Teri Cunliffe, CEO of Covenant Living Communities & Services and Anita Holt, CEO of The Forest at Duke, spoke about the need for women to be proactive as they pursue a path of leadership. We shouldn’t wait to be seen, says Cunliffe. We need to raise our hand, take action to improve something, and make certain we do a good job of it. Holt reminds us we have a voice. If we see someone doing a job or being what we aspire to, we need to reach out to them and ask for their help.

Use Our Words

Words have power. Speaking up about my accomplishments is one of the hardest things I have learned to do. Even if you haven’t felt it, imposter syndrome holds too many of us back because it silences us. We need to remember what Muhammad Ali said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” The corollary is also true, it’s not bragging if it’s true!

Koro Castellano, Diversity and Inclusion Director at Amazon, notes that we are accustomed to relying on data and facts to tell the story about our projects and work. But we don’t do that when we talk about ourselves and our accomplishments. We need to learn to do so.

Follow the Leader

Sarah Thomas, the first female official for the NFL, the keynote speaker for the Ziegler conference reminded the audience that if you can see it, you can be it. But seeing is not enough. Finding and working with a mentor can be a difference maker. You could reach out to a peer who you trust and ask them for feedback about how you’re doing during meetings. You might ask a senior manager if they would be your mentor or if they can recommend someone. You should look for executive coaches outside your industry.

No one is born knowing how to lead. I’m slightly bemused at the career I’ve forged. Few of us have deliberately set out to become leaders in senior living. We’re here because someone, usually many someones, has given us advice, guidance, and a little push. Women are attuned to those moments. We prize collaboration. Nurturing. Inclusivity. We just need to remember that we deserve the same things we extend to others. Holt advocates for mentoring at each stage of your career. When she became a CEO, she recognized the need to find a mentoring group to help her grow into the role so she could continue to achieve her goals.

Compassion is Our Strength

Dawn S. Kirk, author of Heartbeat Leadership and a speaker at the Ziegler conference, explained why she advocates for compassion as the most effective driver of leadership. Our ability to empathize is an asset, not a drawback, she said. We need to think of it as our superpower.  We just need to be reminded that we all have a superpower.

When we use our words, push ourselves out of a comfort zone, work with mentors, and believe in ourselves, the paths forward multiply. Ask any woman in a leadership position about how she got there, and you’ll hear an individual story and an archetypal tale. But I hope you’ll take the next step by asking her to help you achieve your goals.