Women Aiming for New Gains in Senior Living Leadership

While many can agree that barriers to women reaching executive leadership positions are breaking down, that hasn’t yet fully translated to females leading some of the largest corporations, and the senior living industry is no exception.

The topic has come to the forefront of national conversation, fueled by the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s New York Times bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

In the book, Sandberg stresses that executive-minded females must be bold and make themselves heard in the workplace in order to advance their careers.


Like many other business sectors, the senior living industry is not known for having a considerable female presence at executive levels—but that may be changing, albeit slowly, industry leaders suggest.

A sea change could take some time, as a survey of the 50 largest senior living providers in the United States based on the Assisted Living Federation of America’s annual list revealed a substantial gender imbalance at the executive level.

Just three of 36 CEOs among those companies are women—barely more than 8%. When looking at 45 CEO and President positions among the largest 50 providers, the number rises slightly to five women, or about 11%.


On the not-for-profit side, only two of the top 25 companies on the LeadingAge Ziegler 100 list of largest senior living organizations were helmed by females. That amounts to 8%.

While those figures may seem low, they’re actually comparable or even better than corporate America as a whole: less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEO positions are held by women.

“Women remain hugely underrepresented at positions of power in every single sector across this country,” said Barnard College president Debora Spar at a White House conference on urban economic development in February. “We have fallen into what I call the 16% ghetto, which is that if you look at any sector, be it aerospace engineering, Hollywood films, higher education, or Fortune 500 leading positions, women max out at roughly 16%.”

The senior living industry may be on par with other industries in terms of a gender-skewed balance of power, but it may actually have an adverse impact on business considering its consumer base consists primarily of women, encompassing both residents and adult child decision-makers, female executives suggest.

Anecdotally, when older couples are involved in the process of finding a community to move into, the female is still much more involved, says Lee Syria, CEO and President of United Church Homes and Services.

“Men tend to be more analytical, financial minded, looking at just fact and figures,” she says. “But looking at lifestyle choices, women tend to look more at the overall package, the scope, quality of services, warmth of staff, not just the tangible numbers.”

Women tend to have an easier time bringing a more “human touch” element to the table, she says. Considering that senior living is a human services industry, says Syria, “that’s a reason for more female involvement on the executive side.”

Reports have shown that companies with boards where females are represented outperform those without women members, and some executives have expressed surprise that women aren’t better represented.

Syria says that when she goes to meetings now, as CEO of United Church Homes and Services, she sees fewer women than when she was the organization’s chief operating officer. Even back then, she says, females were usually outnumbered by males, but less so—and it’s changing.

“There’s going to be a certain amount of push for gender diversity going forward,” Syria says. “It seems like even outside of senior living, if there is a balance in the boardrooms, at the corporate level, that the results tend to be better for the corporation or organization.”

Seeing that trend, she says, makes her believe there will be a push for fairer representation. And once that happens, other say, the industry itself could change.

“If you gender-balanced corporate boards, I believe you’d see radical shift in the way business is done,” says Lynn Katzmann, the founder, president, and CEO of Juniper Communities, a New Jersey-based company that operates 15 long-term care communities. “If we did that, we would make a difference.”

Balancing the c-suite is Katzmann’s self-proclaimed goal at Juniper, where she says half the company’s board members are, in fact, women. While the benefits people bring to the table depend more on their personal attributes and skills than their gender, Katzmann believes greater female presence would bring its own kind of value.

“Our business would take on a slightly different sensitivity; we [could] deliver a more creative, better product down the road,” she says. “Not to say men can’t do that—they can. But having more women in the c-suite in our industry would allow women to speak out more, feel more comfortable, bring their unique perspectives and understanding of the world.”

Something that frustrates Katzmann, she says, “is that we’re basically a business of women, but look at where they are: [many] in the lower tier.”

Much of that is due to the evolution of the senior living industry, according to Sue Farrow, who heads management company Integral Senior Living as one of just three female CEOs on ALFA’s list of top-50 senior living providers.

“A lot of those companies came out of skilled nursing, and the reality is, most of those were operated and owned by men,” says Farrow. “As an industry, it saw early on a preponderance of females at the administrator level. As it grew, we began to see a lot of women promoted from administrative positions on up through the ranks.”

Many are eager not just to correct the gender imbalance, but to welcome the training and forming of a new generation of leaders to helm what’s becoming an increasingly relevant industry.

The evolution, Farrow says, has been “fascinating,” as the senior living industry needs skilled people, but in many cases has to “home-grow” them, absent a big pool of qualified talent.

“We’re seeing more and more women in the top spots, like at Belmont Village Senior Living [headed by Patricia Will],” says Farrow. “We’re seeing more, and it’s been an interesting evolution.”

For now, while there may not be many women in corporate senior living roles, their ranks are growing—and the ones who are there have earned their spot.

“If you look at Patricia [Will of Belmont Village], Stephanie [Handelson of Benchmark Senior Living], or Brenda Bacon [Brandywine Senior Living], to name a few, it’s an industry where women [already] have a prominent place,” says Mercedes Kerr, senior vice president of marketing at Health Care REIT. “It’s both existing—and it’s a challenge that we have to rise to as well.”

Editors Note: In the coming days, Senior Housing News will publish profiles of three women who hold executive-level positions in the senior living industry: Stephanie Handelson, president and COO of Benchmark Senior Living; Patricia Will, president and founder of Belmont Village Senior Living; and Mary Leary, CEO of Mather LifeWays.