Women are the primary healthcare decision makers, often labeled the “chief medical officer” of their homes and beyond. In fact, they make 80% of all buying and usage decisions. Not to mention, they also constitute over 70% of the healthcare workforce.
And yet women are sorely underrepresented in healthcare leadership. They make up only 30% of C-suite executives and 13% of CEOs, according to a new report by global management consulting firm Oliver Wyman. On average, it takes women three to five years longer to reach CEO status in the healthcare field.
Generally, there’s less gender diversity at the top executive level, where dominant male perceptions and associated biases take root. Instead, women often serve in technical expert roles reporting to the CEO, such as chief human resources officer, chief legal officer, or chief information officer, “where technical expertise supersedes intangible qualities,” writes Oliver Wyman.
As expected, it’s a great loss of input for those who have direct and intimate knowledge of the industry’s pain points. So what exactly is holding women back in this field?
Oliver Wyman consultants analyzed the career paths of 112 healthcare industry CEOs and spoke with more than 75 individuals (both men and women) to better understand the dynamics at play. They identified several patterns. For instance:
- It’s harder for women to achieve the same level of implicit trust in male-dominated workplaces.
- Women are less likely to self-promote.
- Women lack a robust number of female mentors and sizable professional network.
- Long-held biases as to what constitutes “leadership” hold women back.
“Many men automatically give trust and respect to a man, then take it away. Women have to earn trust and respect to begin with,” one anonymous female CEO said in the report. “I don’t think it’s conscious.”
Gender parity doesn’t affect just healthcare leaders, but healthcare founders as well. While health-focused femtech companies raised over $1.1 billion in 2017, reports CB Insights, female-led startups are still widely underrepresented: Only 9% of health tech businesses are founded by women, and women make up about 11% of health-tech partners.
Representation affects research and funding, as numerous startup founders in the space attest. If VCs can’t personally relate to a health issue, they’re less inclined to take interest. It’s why you’ll find numerous companies devoted to erectile dysfunction or male hair loss, while fertility startups might still struggle for funding.
“I’ve heard the same story over and over of male investors who did not really understand the problem well enough to get excited about a company,” Halle Tecco, investor and founder emeritus of Rock Health, a seed fund investing in digital health startups, previously told Fast Company. “And the few women and doctors that there are [in this sector] are spread so thin because they’re overwhelmed with the amount of opportunity.”
There are other issues at play, including the medical community’s legacy of failing to meet women’s health issues, either by doctors dismissing or minimizing patients’ claims, a historic unease of discussing “taboo” subjects like sexual health, or simply lacking an interest in diseases and chronic conditions that disproportionately affect women. Keep in mind: Women weren’t included in clinical trials for new drugs until 1993.
Last year, Colette Courtion, founder of vaginal device company Joylux, recalled the difficulties of selling Silicon Valley on the importance of female sexual wellness. This, despite the fact that one-third of all women suffer from one or more pelvic floor disorders, and that the U.S. sexual wellness market is expected to reach $8.8 billion by 2025.
“The question I get a lot from investors and people that I brought into the company after I founded it is: Why hasn’t this been done before?” Courtion told Fast Company at the time. Her response was that women shied away from freely discussing such an intimate issue, thereby enforcing its hidden status.
Tecco predicts the women’s health tech sector will witness more progress, though she concedes it’s partially because overall digital healthcare is growing, and that “women’s health is an area that has been traditionally neglected comparatively, so there has been some catching up.”
Tammy Sun, founder of Carrot Fertility, which works closely with employers to offer affordable and customizable fertility care benefit programs, sees the tide slowly but surely shifting. When Sun first began to pitch her startup to VCs in 2016, she saw little enthusiasm and little understanding of “even what the problem was,” she told Fast Company. Today, “you’re seeing the conversation change . . . it has now become evident to the world that [a female issue like fertility] is something that matters to lot of people.”
Diversity, of course, is well within a company’s best interest: A new study found that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experience better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation. Seeing as how by 2040, the world will spend $25 trillion every year on healthcare–150% increase since 2014–let’s hope the industry takes best hiring (and promoting) practices more seriously. The market simply can’t afford to leave out women any longer.