Challenges and Opportunities for Women on Health Care Boards during the COVID-19 Pandemic

A laptop sits on a desk with an executive-level woman on the screen.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought great change to health care boards – both in the issues they face and how the meetings are conducted, making the expertise women bring to the board table more important than ever before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every facet of life in the United States—including forcing corporations and nonprofit organizations in the health care sector to rethink their business models in order to stay afloat. As a result, both public and private boards of directors and nonprofit boards of trustees have had to find new ways to protect their company’s value and performance.

Now, more than ever, women can bring important expertise to the board table to help their companies and organizations respond to the pandemic in order to survive—and perhaps even come out stronger on the other side, according to Ellen Zane, past president and chief executive officer of Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Children’s Hospital and co-program director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value.

Gender Inequity on Boards

Zane, who herself serves on a number of public and private boards, explains that during the COVID-19 pandemic, board directors and executive management are learning by trial and error as they go along. But she stresses that women can lend an important perspective by building on problem solving skills they have developed over the years through job responsibilities and caring for their families, which may include children or aging parents. In fact, many of their insights from these experiences can translate well to help boards navigate this tumultuous time.

Yet women historically have not had a strong presence on health care boards, points out Laurie Pascal, Senior Lecturer at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and co-program director of the Women on Boards program. Research from Catalyst, which is based on women’s status on boards in more than 8,600 companies throughout the world, reveals that in 2018 women held just under 17 percent of global board seats, despite the great value they offer.

Now, more than ever, women can bring important expertise to the board table to help their companies and organizations respond to the pandemic in order to survive—and perhaps even come out stronger on the other side.

Changes to Boards in COVID-19 That May Hold Hidden Opportunities 

Both Zane and Pascal agree that it’s important for women to take the time to understand the dynamic changes the health care industry has undergone due to the pandemic, and to recognize how this has influenced the way boards operate. By having a clear understanding of the current realities, women can position themselves to get, or maintain, a foothold in this highly competitive world.

Here are five changes to board format and operations that have occurred during the pandemic that women should be prepared for:

1. Conducting Board Meetings Remotely

“Moving meetings to a virtual format is one of the biggest changes that has come about in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pascal says. This means boards have to manage technology challenges, and other board members may be multi-tasking or distracted during meetings.

The silver lining, though, is that there are some benefits to virtual meetings. Busy women can now attend meetings without having to travel. This may provide new opportunities for women to expand board representation.

“There is no question that the logistics of Zoom have helped us all,” Zane says. “Due to my board portfolio, I was traveling every week before COVID, sometimes just going from one meeting to another. Now I don’t have to deal with airports or bad weather,” she adds. Instead, she is able to attend meetings from the convenience of her home office. Having meetings online means that more people are reliably able to attend, and companies are also saving a great deal on travel expenses.

2. Following a Condensed Agenda

The agendas for board meetings have also undergone radical changes since the pandemic hit.
“In-person corporate board meetings usually involve a rigorous day starting at 8 or 9 a.m. (or earlier), with one meeting after another without any real breaks. But now, people get Zoom fatigue so things are more broken up, and there is less chatting and more very directed conversation, so things get done efficiently,” Zane says. This means that it is easier to fulfill board responsibilities while also maintaining other commitments.

3. Holding Board Interviews Remotely

While interviews for board candidates used to be held in person, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, candidates are now interviewed virtually. This provides a more convenient way to assess a candidate’s skills and cultural fit while avoiding the need to travel.

But there is one caveat: In order to be successful in a remote interview, Zane says women need to treat the situation just as seriously as they would in person.

“Even in COVID, women who desire a seat on the board will have to dress the part and have a professional backdrop for the meeting,” she says.

4. Taking Networking Opportunities Virtual

Networking opportunities, which are a critical component of how women secure board spots, have largely disappeared since the start of the pandemic. Since the majority of board membership opportunities typically come through relationships, maintaining professional connections remains ever important.

Zane emphasizes that networking will continue to be essential moving forward. “Go to virtual industry events. Reach out to your network to see who in their networks can connect you to companies you are interested in. This is how you begin to make the connections.”

Seeking out groups that meet online can also give women the chance to flex their networking skills and broaden their contact list, while also providing a valuable forum in which to practice presenting themselves and their skills.

5. Requiring a Deeper Understanding of the Board’s Role

Zane stresses that now, more than ever, women seeking board representation need to fully understand the role they desire. “It’s important to know that being on a board is different from getting a job,” she says. You aren’t running the show but, rather, providing guidance in the background and governance oversight to management. It’s a team sport. With meetings virtual and less time for personal connections, it’s essential for women seeking new board membership to understand what will be expected of them and to make sure that stepping into this arena is right for them, and if so, that the organization they are pursuing is also a fit, right from the beginning.

Adapting to a New Normal, Long Term

There is no way to predict what life will look like after the pandemic subsides, but one thing is clear: many of the new ways of doing business on health care boards will likely continue. Zane says that while in-person meetings are too valuable to lose completely, board meetings will become a hybrid of in-person and remote events in the future.

For women looking to secure board membership, she offers the following tips to help them maximize their potential and help make them competitive for any future board role:

  • Understand the strengths you bring to the table.
  • Decide what organizations are of interest to you and why, and determine how your skill set is a match. Boards need different skills at different times. Don’t assume because you are smart and accomplished that your skills will automatically translate to those needed by a board.
  • Research the impact of COVID-19 on the industry you are pursuing, and what new challenges have arisen, so you can speak to and position yourself for the current realities.

Pascal adds that since diversity is valued on boards now more than ever, women who are well prepared may have more opportunities in the future to land a spot on public and private boards where they can use their personal and professional experience to help organizations navigate the demands of a post-COVID-19 world.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value, a leadership program for women aiming to sit on a health care board of directors.