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Hospital Spotlight: Niagara Health beats national average of women in hospital leadership roles

Posted Mar 21st, 2024

This is an opinion column by Niagara Health Communications Specialist Tiffany Mayer, published in the St. Catharines Standard, Niagara Falls Review and Welland Tribune.

Women leaders at Niagara Health

More than 40 female leaders, employed by Niagara Health, gather with hospital chief executive officer and president Lynn Guerriero for a photo on International Women's Day. Photo by Muir Image Photography.

Lynn Guerriero can’t help but be taken by the sight as she scans a hospital auditorium filled with women.

The President and CEO of Niagara Health is gathered for a photo with 45 of her fellow female-identifying leaders at the organization to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. She smiles as she takes stock of the crowd, a cross-section of the women who guide hospital health care in the region.

“It’s really moving that we have this many female leaders,” Guerriero says. “To see the number of women we have in leadership roles when I walked into the room was a little overwhelming.”

Health care has historically been a sector with a predominantly female workforce. When it comes to leadership, it’s also one where the glass ceiling is showing cracks.

Women represent 82 per cent of Niagara Health’s staff. At the executive level, seven of nine leaders gathering around the table are women, some of whom began their career trajectory on the front lines of health care. The Board of Directors is also chaired by a woman, Marylee O’Neill.

Based on numbers alone, Niagara Health is above average when it comes to female representation at the decision-making tier in Canadian hospitals.

Nearly 52 per cent of hospital presidents and CEOs across Canada are perceived to be women, according to a March 2022 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which gleaned its data from hospital websites.

Closer to home, 52 per cent of Ontario hospital CEOs are perceived to be or self-identified as women, according to the Ontario Hospital Association’s Proximity Institute.

“We’ve made a very deliberate decision to support female leaders with flexibility in their work schedules, including the ability to do work from home or flex work schedules,” Guerriero says. “That helps the whole workforce but especially women.”

“It’s making sure women can achieve their career goals, even if it’s a hard road to get there."

Change that requires conscious action

Support for women working at Niagara Health shows in other initiatives. The organization recently purchased three lactation pods to help mothers who need to breastfeed or express breastmilk on the job and prefer a private space to do so. The pods at the St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland hospitals, are available to health care workers, learners, volunteers, patients and visitors.

The organization has established mentorship and bursary programs that provide professional development support to assist equity-deserving groups in career advancement. Supports are also in place for women physicians on the leadership track.

“Health care is predominantly women,” says Fiona Peacefull, Niagara Health’s Executive Vice-President of Human Resources. “Eighty-two per cent (of our workforce being women) really shows that we’re an organization that needs women to operate. That’s translated to some really phenomenal professional development opportunities for women in our organization.”

These are women who are mothers, daughters in caregiving roles to aging parents or ailing partners, those going back to school in their spare time, or dealing with personal challenges, such as divorce, Guerriero notes.

Guerriero’s own lived experience as she worked to become a hospital CEO included raising three children, getting her master’s degree while having to work full time, and navigating a separation while her children were young. Through it all, she says she had supportive managers and leaders who never made her choose between work and family. That’s become fundamental to her own principles as a leader. 

“It’s making sure women can achieve their career goals, even if it’s a hard road to get there,” she says. “We absolutely expect them to put their personal lives first, not work. You don’t have to give up being a good mom and partner for your career. You can absolutely have both.”

Niagara Health also stepped up to the Government of Canada’s 50/30 Challenge, an initiative to increase representation and inclusion of diverse groups in the workplace. Goals of the challenge include achieving gender parity (50 per cent women and/or non-binary people) on boards or in senior management, and at least 30 per cent representation of other equity-deserving groups, particularly racialized groups, people with disabilities, and gender and sexually diverse people, on boards or in senior management.

In a hospital, that kind of representation means a better working environment for everyone, a more resilient organization, and, ultimately, better health care, Peacefull notes.

“People are inspired if they see relatability in their leaders. I see a lot of women and diversity in our leadership group and I hope that’s really encouraging,” Peacefull says. “I personally find it inspiring. The environment I work in right now allows me to do my best work. I attribute that to Lynn (Guerriero) and the peer group I work with and that’s not just based on gender.”

None of this is accidental or incidental. Back in the auditorium at The Marotta Family Hospital in St. Catharines, Guerriero notes that having so many women leaders to celebrate at Niagara Health is deliberate. And it will continue to require conscious action to sustain until it becomes just business as usual.

“We still have to be intentional around supporting female leaders. Culture change takes time,” she says. “But some day, I hope it will be part of the culture. We’ll support that because we believe in our gut we need diverse leadership to achieve the best outcomes. If we believe it, and I do, it becomes part of the culture.”

Photo information

Back row from left: Jolene Courchene, Indigenous Relations Specialist; Laura Morrison, Director, Kidney Care and Ambulatory Programs; Andrea Nguyen, Director, Service Planning and Operational Readiness; Paula Matkowski, Director, People Services; Dr. Karen MacMillan, Chief Obstetrics and Gynecology; Barb Evans, Project Director, South Niagara Hospital; Tracey Giovannone, Director Human Resources; Sue Nenadovic, Director, Materials Management; Lisa Hildebrand, Director, Medicine, Access and Flow; Fiona Peacefull, Executive Vice-President, Human Resources; Andrea Scott, President and CEO, Niagara Health Foundation; Karen Paschert, Clinical Manager, Niagara Falls Emergency Department; Shanna Devlin, Manager, ePMO; Laura Farrelly; Director, Emergency and Urgent Care, Interim Director, Mental Health and Addictions; Kerry Abbott, Administrator, Long-Term Care.

Middle row: Sonali Kohli, Executive Vice-President, Digital Trasformation; Chief Information Officer, Zainab Awad, Manager, Health Equity; Jennifer Whalley, Manager, Medical Affairs; Dr. Jennifer Frendo, Physician; Harpreet Bassi, Executive Vice-President, Strategy and Communicatons; Interim Executive Lead, Research and Niagara Health Knowledge Institute; Elayn Young, Director, Critical Care and Cardiology; Madelyn Law, Director, Quality, Patient Safety and Risk; Dr. Joyce Lam, Physician; Lynn Guerriero, President and CEO; Elaina Orlando, Manager, Reserach and Ethics; Dr. Pam Kapend, Physician; Dr. Jen Robert, Physician; Tara Coffin-Simpson, Clinical Manager, St. Catharines Emergency Department; Tracy Gilbert, Director, Hospital Information System; Erica Bajer, Manager, Public Affairs.

Front row: Genevieve-Renee Laurin-Bisson, Manager, Corporate Communications; Linda Boich, Executive Vice-President, Patient Experience and Integrated Care; Dr. Lorraine Jensen, Chief, Medicine; Heather Paterson, Executive Vice-President, Clinical Operations; Dr. Jennifer Tsang, Niagara Health Knowledge Institute Executive Director and Chief Scientist; Dr. Amanda Bell, Regional Assistant Dean, Niagara Regional Campus, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine; Natalie Doucet, Interim Director, Women, Babies and Children's Unit; Dr. Allison MacTavish, Physician; Janice Feather, Director, Professional Practice and Education; Shirly Fleming, Director of Care, ECU/ILTC; Mary Jane Johnson, Director, Communications and Engagement; Tracy Fazzari, Director, Oncology and Palliative Care; Dr. Helen Caetano, Interim Chief, Surgery; Ashlee Babcock, Director, Strategy and ePMO.

Niagara Health System