This Women’s History Month, Vitals conducted a virtual Q&A with Hamila Kownacki, chief operating officer at Sutter’s California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) in San Francisco. Here’s what Kownacki had to say about her journey and experiences as a female leader in healthcare.
Q. What motivated you to go into healthcare?
A. Nursing was my first career choice. I was new to this country, and nursing was a respected profession. I knew I’d have a job. It ended up being amazing. I was a bedside nurse for six years in oncology and the ICU. As I became more comfortable in my clinical skills, I wanted to learn about the business side of medicine.
Q. Are there unique challenges or hurdles you’ve faced as a woman in this profession—and how have you handled them?
A. One challenge I have faced is that women in leadership positions are often held to a different standard than men. For example, a man who is considered “tough” is thought to be a strong leader, whereas a woman leader who is considered “tough” is given other labels. For me, the realization of this perception of women leaders has helped me understand that effective leadership is not about being tough. It is about consistency, setting clear directions, supporting your team, and recognizing that leadership requires multiple styles depending on the circumstances.
Q. What’s been the most significant barrier to you as a female leader?
A. My biggest barrier is my own unconscious bias about being a woman leader. We all have different ideas about what makes an effective leader. The culture and environment we work in reinforces our own internal bias. We all have the potential to step up and contribute effectively. When self-doubt surfaces, which it inevitably will for leaders at every level, one needs to reflect on their own internal voice. Don’t let that little voice speak loudly. Instead, focus on this: “I’m just as good. I’m just as skilled. I’m just as smart. And most important, I can do this.”
Q. Have you seen movement in that barrier coming down? If yes, how so?
A. Yes, I believe it is coming down. I grew up in a female-dominated household, attended an all-girls school by choice, and had many female role models growing up. This has taught me not to be timid but to be bold. No doubt that background and environment can influence our attitudes toward stepping out of our comfort zone.
I see a recognition and discussion about barriers that have historically held women back in the workplace. The increasing discussion about gender and other biases is leading to a movement to diversify leadership to be more reflective of our society. I’m happy to say that at Sutter Health I have seen much greater movement to diversify the C-suite (an organization’s executive-level managers). This is reflective of a cultural change that is advancing both women and other underrepresented groups. This advancement is not just a window dressing but reflects real change to give opportunities to qualified individuals.
Q. How do you see your role in inspiring or advising women who are coming up behind you?
A. We have a pool of talented women who will be following me in their career journey. My advice is be honest, be inclusive, develop solutions and, most importantly, support other women. We must be supportive of each other. We all have periods of self-doubt, and there will be barriers for every individual to navigate in the future. Develop a solid peer support group to help you learn from one another. Most important, trust yourself. Overcoming self-doubt and overcoming any notion that “I do not deserve to be here” is key as you move up the corporate ladder.
Hamila Kownacki started her career as a registered nurse with a specialty in oncology and intensive care. In addition to her Chief Operating Officer (COO) role at CPMC, Kownacki serves on multiple boards, including Meals on Wheels San Francisco and Jewish Vocational Services. She earned her bachelor’s degree at California State University, Northridge and her master’s in health services administration at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif.