“As I have evolved my leadership, I realized what we were lacking were women leaders. The next phase of my legacy is to increase the number of women leaders in health care.”

– Joanne Conroy, MD

Women lead only 8.8% of Fortune 500 companies (asamonitor.pub/3UDeAwD). Equally dismal statistics cite that just 13% of health care CEOs are women, despite the fact that 80% of our health care workers are women (asamonitor.pub/3VUmxyD). Although women leadership in health care is still the minority, there are exceptions.

Joanne M. Conroy, MD, is a masterclass in health care leadership, and she currently serves as President and Chief Executive Officer of Dartmouth Health. Dartmouth Health is New Hampshire’s only academic health system and the state’s largest private employer. In September 2022, we spoke with Dr. Conroy to discuss her perspectives on her career, rise to leadership, and legacy.

Dr. Conroy is a licensed and ABA-certified anesthesiologist. Her leadership in academic anesthesiology began as a chief resident. She rose to become Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology at the Medical University of South Carolina. While reflecting on her early career, she mentioned she wished she had spent more time contemplating her trajectory. She said, “I wish that I had spent more time really thinking about where I wanted to end up and what I wanted to be in 20-25 years – more time thinking about the end game.” Her advice to future leaders is to have clear-cut goals. She also thought it was important to have mentors or role models; people that you observe being effective leaders. Dr. Conroy is convinced that young physicians “learn early on that leadership is not about you – it’s about getting things done.” Bottom line: “You have to be prepared for personal and professional risks.”

Transitioning to administrative leadership began for Dr. Conroy at Atlantic Health in 2001, serving as their chief medical officer. She went on to serve for more than five years as the Chief Health Care Officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. Dr. Conroy first served as CEO for Lahey Hospital and Medical Center, and in 2017 she became the CEO and President of Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health (now known as Dartmouth Health). Her path to leadership there was successful, in part, due to her “sponsorship” by a colleague. The former Vice President of Medical Affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, a female anesthesiologist, called her and told her that Dartmouth was looking for a new CEO, and she suggested Dr. Conroy’s name. Sponsorship is an active process and has proven to be essential in leadership attainment for women (J Gen Intern Med 2021;36:1-8).

In an effective sponsorship, both parties must be engaged. “Nobody taps you on the shoulder,” said Dr. Conroy. “You may have to ask somebody to sponsor you to attain a position in leadership.”

As part of her vision to help correct leadership gaps, Dr. Conroy co-founded Women of Impact (WOI), an organization dedicated to breaking the glass ceiling. The purpose of WOI is to advance female executives in the health care field. The focus of its members is to “further the impact that they want to have and make” in their careers. WOI is a platform where women executives in health care sponsor other women.

The members are “very good at helping each other get the next job, both identifying opportunities as well as helping sponsor each other” said Dr. Conroy. Data from WOI shows that half of the women participating improved their career placements within 18 months of joining the group.

In 2020, Dr. Conroy gave the ASA’s Emery A. Rovenstine Memorial Lecture – one of only four women to have done so since its inception in 1962. One of the themes she focused on was gender equality. Pay and leadership gaps remain areas for improvement in medicine, including in anesthesiology. Hertzberg et al. revealed a (-)8.3% difference, or $32,617 lower compensation, for women anesthesiologists (Anesth Analg 2021;133:1009-18). McMullen et al. conducted a review of the top 20 anesthesiology journals chosen by impact factor and showed there is not now, nor has there ever been, a woman editor-in-chief (Anesth Analg 2022;134:956-63). We asked Dr. Conroy to cite specific examples of the changes she had instituted at Dartmouth to equalize gender gaps. Since assuming the office, Dr. Conroy has initiated “a salary analysis for all faculty looking for race and gender discrepancies for rank and years of service,” a process which she continues to this day. She also started a women’s leadership group at Dartmouth Health, which in her words, provides a safe place to discuss micro-inequities.

Dr. Conroy is actively involved in many organizations supporting women in health care, including the Carol Emmott Foundation, the Equity Collaborative, and the Center for Women in Academic Medicine and Science. The American Hospital Association named Dr. Conroy as its Chair-Elect, which will make her Chair of the Board of Trustees in 2024. Upon inquiring about her potential agenda, not surprisingly, she said we must “focus on equity, both health equity and equity in terms of access to leadership across all of our organizations.”

The specialty of anesthesiology continues to struggle with gender gaps in pay and leadership. Dr. Conroy is passionate about bringing attention to health care and leadership inequity and working hard to close the gaps. Her leadership and legacy are inspiring and will have real impact on future generations of women who aspire to lead. With all of her accomplishments, there is not much left for her to achieve, except possibly … U.S. Surgeon General.