The current president of City of Hope Orange County offered advice and inspiration for women considering careers in male-dominated healthcare C-suites.
When she was a director-level manager and mother of four, Annette Walker, MHA, noticed a similar question came up frequently in the comments board members made to her: "Gosh, how can you do this job if you have all those kids?"
The question, as Walker recalls it, exposed the way some decision-makers implicitly saw her motherhood as a liability. While a father's career choices would likely be affirmed as a means to provide for his family, Walker says, a mother's career choices were being questioned as though they competed with her domestic duties.
Walker says her direct supervisors never doubted her. But knowing that board members' unconscious biases could impede her further promotion, she stopped displaying photos of her children at work and quit talking about her family life.
"It's not that I never talked about it, but I knew who I could talk to about it," she says. "I knew when to be quiet about it."
Walker, who has raised six children, has been president of City of Hope Orange County since last year, and she served previously as president of strategy for Providence St. Joseph Health. She has a few pieces of advice for women pursuing careers in healthcare leadership.
1. Don't Pause Your Life for Work
"There are women who express to me their concern that if they have a baby it's going to really ruin their career, and I always tell them, 'Forget that. You're in the wrong company if that's the case,'" Walker tells HealthLeaders.
"You need to live your life," she adds. "Don't put your life on hold for your job."
2. Don't Wait for an Invitation
Women often still feel the need to seek permission before sharing their views. Enough of that, Walker says: "You've got to claim your seat, claim your airspace in the room."
Sure, sometimes, you will make a mistake or say the wrong thing, but if you consistently say nothing at all, then you will be irrelevant, Walker says.
"Be brave. Be present. Use your voice," she adds. "Don't wait for an invitation."
3. Find Your Personal Supporters
In addition to professional mentors, you need people in your personal life who affirm your ambitions, Walker says.
"I am grateful that I had a husband who supported me in my pursuits," she says.
Even though they married before she knew she wanted to be a healthcare CEO, Walker says her husband has never been afraid that her career might surpass his.
"As my goals became clearer," she adds, "his support didn't change."
Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.