“If you want to be at the head of the table, you have to be sitting there first.”

That’s the message for gender diversity that Merida Johns, president at the Monarch Center for Women’s Leadership Development, brought to the American Health Information Management Association’s annual conference, where 92 percent of AHIMA members are women.

Women are at least 50 percent of the nation’s workforce, and 77 percent in health care and education. They control 73 percent of household spending--$4.4 trillion in discretionary spending each year. “But a disproportionate number systematically fair to reach middle or senior levels, let alone the C-suite,” Johns, a 40-year HIM professional, told a packed session hall with a smattering of men.

There’s been no progress in closing the wage gap since 2001, she asserted. Women on average earn 78 cents for each dollar earned by a male in the same job--58 cents for professional women as the gap increases as they rise in the ranks. Other stats: 46 percent of all employees in Fortune 500 companies are women. Yet only 14.4 percent are executive officers, about 15.7 percent serve on the board, 7.6 percent are top earning executives and 2.4 percent are CEOs. Less than 15 percent of hospital CEOs are women.

The inequity continues despite multiple studies over 15 years that show companies that best promote women “outstrip other companies on every measure of profitability,” Johns asserted. There are many reasons for the discrepancies and women share the blame, she noted. They have lower career confidence and set ambitions lower, lack clarity in those ambitions, have a cautious approach to applying for positions, and are reluctant to promote themselves. “When women get a compliment, think of how you respond: ‘Oh, it was nothing.’”

A free Web site at the University of Pennsylvania, www.authentichappiness.com, can help women and men develop an inventory of character strengths, establish a vision and purpose, develop career clarity, and develop “audacious goals,” Johns advised. She also walked through the LEADS Model that her organization uses to aid women in career advancement. The model covers leveraging strengths, enhancing confidence, massing social capital, developing your personal brand and seeking opportunities.

Johns recalled a former assistant who later was an aide to a health care CIO. He asked what her ambition was and she said, “I want your job.” The CIO mentored her for 1.5 years until he was recruited by another organization. He didn’t want the position but told the organization he had the perfect candidate, and the aide today is CIO at a large delivery system. “Put up the goals and you’ll be surprised at the opportunities that start coming up.”

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