When I first began working in international development, I was relentless in my passion for gender equality in poor-resource and war-torn areas around the world. I realized the power of technology and innovative approaches to healthcare and how they continue to transform women’s opportunities for social, economic, and political progress. I returned home to the U.S., exhausted by sexist double standards in the field, but also eager to join the health tech world where I could continue my commitment to closing the global gender gap. Much to my chagrin, a misogynistic work culture is not unique to the developing world.
In fact, women account for just 18% of hospital CEOs, 15% of partners in healthcare venture capital firms, and 4% of healthcare CEO’s [i] in the United States. These statistics alone will not convince our society to encourage women’s leadership unless we recognize the serious consequences of leaving women out of the healthcare equation. If workplace gender bias continues to persist and thrive, there really is no way that women in the tech world will be valued as equally as men unless we demand it. Within the health tech industry, HITLAB strives to close the gender gap with more than 80% of its leadership, research team, and industry experts consisting of women. It was the first time I had worked in a culture that simultaneously advanced women into the tech field and valued the impact of innovation in healthcare. When surrounded by a cohort of fiercely ambitious and passionate women driving innovation for some of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies, universities, and government agencies, among others, it’s easy to forget that my work culture is an anomaly.
At last year’s HITLAB Innovators Summit, a panel of women addressed the impact of women’s leadership and why we should care about their representation in health and technology. It was refreshing to see not only a panel of women—including startup CEO’s, physician executives, and directors of digital health programs—but also a female moderator—the vice president of a global creative communications company. The economic impact, competitive advantage for businesses, and value of impact were addressed as major factors for advancing women’s leadership in health tech.
“The U.S. has experienced 11% growth over the last 40 years and that is directly powered by the fact that women are participating more and more in this economy,” reported moderator Sharon Suchotliff, in reference to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report [ii]. Even then, imagine what the U.S. economy would look like if we had policies in place to accommodate greater flexibility in hours for mothers, and mandatory paid family and medical leave that could be used for childcare. Sarah Holoubek, CEO of Luminary Labs, shared how creating a family leave policy allowed her company to grow, even while she herself was away on maternity leave. Kate Ryder, CEO of Maven, a digital healthcare clinic designed for women, suggested that expanding one’s company and, consequently, the economy at large would require a culture of flexibility [i]. Given that the longstanding structures of the American workplace are not conducive to women’s needs, narrowing that gender gap will require more empathy from policy-makers and a shift in cultural attitude.
Closing the workforce gender gap isn’t just about equal rights; it’s also about good business sense! In fact, it’s no secret that more diverse companies perform better. The Catalyst recently came out with a report that found increased financial performance for companies with a higher representation of women board directors. A return on equity, sales, and invested capital from companies with the highest percentage of women board directors outperform their competitors anywhere between 50 and 66% [iii]. Diversifying leadership can drive innovation and maximize the company’s performance by empowering employees with unique skills and experiences.
“Women make 85% of the healthcare choices of the family; they really are the Chief Medical Officers of the family…so why wouldn’t we have women on leadership boards, as product managers and engineers in order to better help us make those decisions so we can make better products?” Lexie Komisar, associate director of digital health at the Clinton Foundation, makes an incredibly valid point [i]: How can we ignore gender inequality in the health tech workspace, when women account for not only a significant portion of the consumer population, but also are instrumental in identifying needs and challenges in health? If we continue to dismiss the woman’s voice in the board room and fail to equally value her in comparison with her male counterparts, then we are underutilizing our workforce and failing to meet the needs of the consumer.
The gender equality gap is often associated with less technologically advanced and often politically unstable societies, but that is far from reality. The United States may hold title as a superpower, but it’s the sexist subtleties in your everyday consumption of media to the blatant misogyny in the office space that undermine our society’s potential for greater advancement in health and technology. Transforming the American work culture obviously can’t be done overnight; but every conversation sparked around sexism and women’s experiences in the workplace can drive us closer to equality if we demand it.
[i] YouTube. (2015). HITLAB Innovators Summit: Women are agents of change- Women in health tech panel. Retrieved 2 September 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njfK_SEtq
[ii] World Economic Forum. (2013). The Global Gender Gap Report. Geneva: World Economic Forum. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2013.pdf
[iii] Carter, N., Joy, L., & Narayanan, S. (2007). Knowledge Center SHARE inShare 20 The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women's Representation on Boards. The Chubb Corporation. Retrieved from http://www.catalyst.org/system/files/The_Bottom_Line_Corporate_Performance_and_Womens_Representation_on_Boards.pdf