How can we help more women ‘break through the glass ceiling’ without injury?


Meghan Fitzgerald, DrPH

Healthcare industry executive

Mike Kaufmann

Chief Financial Officer
Cardinal Health

In April 2015, Meghan Fitzgerald will present her doctoral research, Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling Without Injury: Health Status in Executive Women Ascending the Corporate Laddervia poster presentation at Women's Health 2015: The 23rd Annual Conference, hosted by the Academy of Women’s Health, in Washington, D.C. Her work explored whether there is a health cost for corporate women ascending in the work place. It's a topic near and dear to Fitzgerald's heart – especially as she completed this research while also serving as president of Cardinal Health’s Specialty Solutions business. Here, Fitzgerald talks to us about the impetus behind her research. She and Mike Kaufmann, Cardinal Health's CFO, also share their perspective on what steps can be taken to help both men and women take better care of their health as they pursue their career goals.

Q: How did you first become interested in studying the correlation between women’s health and career achievement?

Fitzgerald: I had taken a senior role at Medco, and was responsible for international business development. The job required almost constant international travel. I enjoyed many aspects of the job. But the travel was grueling. I’d come back to the states for the weekend and I’d crash. I’d need to sleep for 13-14 hours just to recharge and be ready for the week ahead.

The thing was, I wasn’t married at the time and I had no children. It made me think about others on my team, or in similar positions, regardless of their gender, who also had young children or other family responsibilities. They probably couldn’t come home and crash to recharge. They had to ‘do life.’ Take care of kids, make dinner, go to kids’ activities, sometimes care for parents or loved ones. I began to question how it was all possible; and what kind of effect that would have on physical health. That’s what led to this specific research topic.

Q: What do you see as the most surprising findings from your research?

Fitzgerald: What was most surprising to me is that my initial hypothesis was proven wrong. The majority of the women in my study did report good overall health. Which reinforces to me that education and income do have an impact on health, even for women with very challenging work schedules.

However, my research also pointed to some interesting macro trends that I think are worth considering. For example:

  • 48% reported they couldn’t see a doctor due to workload
  • Most are not getting adequate sleep, and 25% use medicine to get to sleep
  • More than half work more than 50 hours a week and take work home
  • 26% have used medicine for anxiety in past year
  • 25% want to lose more than 25lbs
  • 30% said that their change in weight was due to stress
  • 50% exercise 2 days or less/week

After I completed and shared my research with colleagues, I was also somewhat surprised to hear so many of the men I work with say that they experienced some of these same issues.

Q: What led you to seek to get your research published?

Fitzgerald: Cardinal Health has a number of employee resource groups – one is called the Women’s Initiative Network (WIN), which is about 2,500-employees strong. I presented my research at a WIN meeting and was both humbled and overwhelmed by how many of my co-workers were interested in the research and encouraged me to get it published. The general feedback I got was that this is an important topic – one that needs to be talked about and studied. Because if we don’t talk about these issues and understand the root causes, we can’t get to the more important work of finding the solutions.

Q: What’s next? What steps can/should companies and leaders take to address some of these research findings?

Kaufmann: I think it’s critically important that we create an environment where employees, regardless of gender, can discuss common challenges and advocate for unique needs. As Meg mentioned earlier, employee resource groups are one strategy Cardinal Health uses to encourage this dialogue. These groups empower employees with similar concerns to have a platform to discuss their concerns with others, and to work with leadership to ensure we’re creating a workplace that is both diverse and inclusive. I also think it’s important that men and women join together in these conversations. First, because I believe that many of the issues Meg researched affect both men and women. Second, because when men and women sit down and work together on these issues, it builds the kind of empathy and common ground that can lead to the development of real solutions. That’s one reason why I serve as executive sponsor of our Women’s Initiative Network.

Fitzgerald: If companies want to attract and retain top talent, it’s also important that we help employees better balance work with their health and personal lives. And we need to do a better job of fostering a culture that encourages healthy lifestyles. For example, at Cardinal Health, we make it convenient for employees to take care of their health needs. At our corporate office, we offer an  on-site pharmacy and  a clinic where they can get everything from annual physical exams to strep throat tests, and we also have an  on-site fitness center with access to weight training, nautilus equipment, spinning, yoga, aerobics classes and more. For employees who work at other locations, we offer discounts to an international network of fitness centers; and discounts on home fitness equipment.  Some sites have put in their own gyms/fitness areas.  We also offer  on-site biometric screenings and flu shots (at all U.S. locations with 50+ employees)   These services do offer convenience, but equally as important, they send a message to employees that we care about their health and that we want them to make caring for their health a priority.

Kaufmann: I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that employees have personal responsibilities, too.  For example, many are caring for children – and as baby boomers continue to age, many employees will also be taking care of parents. If we can make it easier for employees to manage those responsibilities, they’ll be more loyal, more productive and most importantly, more healthy. That’s why we offer services like back up child care and elder care, and  paid paternal leave for mom’s and dad’s and fully renovated lactation rooms in dozens of our facilities across the U.S.   

But perhaps the most important thing we can do to encourage employees to take better care of their health is simply to walk the walk. I think we need to lead by example. Leaders and managers need to make taking care of our own health a priority. We need to make time to see the doctor. To exercise. When we have available vacation time, we need to take it. We need to try our best to work a ‘regular’ work week, and to encourage our employees to do the same. We need to do a better job at demonstrating to employees that we really do believe that if we take care of ourselves, our health and our families first, we’ll all ultimately be better, more engaged, more productive employees. And we’ll all have a better chance at, as Meg might say, ascending the corporate ladder without injury.