Women Leaders Crucial to Long Term Success of Health Tech

Everything from failed period-tracking apps to unconscious biases in artificial intelligence points to the need for more diversity in health technology. Ideas, innovations and inventions are only as good as the people behind them and the assumptions they rely on when creating the next-big-tech-thing.

It’s not necessarily about any overt attempt at favoring the less-fair sex, one Medical Futurist article argued. It has more to do with the blind spots that come with having only one segment of the population represented in a room when certain decisions are made. Lisa Gualtieri, founder of RecycleHealth, highlighted this issue in a recent tweet about her initiative to find new uses for old fitness trackers.

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“Man: I don’t see why anyone needs a @fitbit when smartphones track activity.”
“Woman: Most women’s clothes don’t have pockets.”

This may represent a fairly innocuous example of how a male-led tech industry occasionally misses the mark with female audiences but that’s not going to be the whole story. Asking women to suffer through a thousand papercut slights because nobody in leadership thought to include them in their decision-making process will lead to much more than a few dissatisfied customers.

‘Whatever the reasons behind it, the gender imbalance in health tech isn’t just a diversity problem – it is a business problem,” Claire Novorol, co-founder of Ada Health, shared in a recent article. “Research shows that women are far more likely to be the primary healthcare decision makers, making on average 80% of all decisions when it comes to buying and using healthcare products and services.”

Diversity is much more than a political move to earn brownie-points from the public, it’s a business strategy that will pay off in the long run. According to the consulting firm Oliver Wyman, only 9 percent of health tech startups are being founded by women and only 13 percent of healthcare CEO positions are filled by women.

“For any business, whatever sector you are operating in, you are more likely to create products that people really want and need if the make-up of your leadership team reflects your customer-base,” Novorol advised. In other words, the lack of input from half of the population is likely to have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line.

The reasons for the lack of female representation in the industry top jobs are complex. It appears to be tougher for women to earn the same level of implicit trust in male-dominated workspaces. Additionally, these environments also tend to become echo chambers – with narrow views of what constitutes leadership qualities being reinforced by their own members which, consequently, making it tougher for women to break the glass ceiling into a C-level position. “[W]e are often conditioned to equate leadership with more stereotypically male traits, which make gender bias self-perpetuating,” Novorol added.

Beyond business self-interest, diversity is important for medical research and outcomes. For example, the National Institute of Health didn’t make it a requirement for government-funded research to include women and minority groups in clinical trials until 1993. Funding is another potential where having variety amongst decision-makers is important. It may be hard, for instance, to persuade a room full of men that a vaginal device company is a good financial bet.

“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 of Rock Health, said in an interview. “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.”

With world-spending on health care reaching an estimated $25 trillion by 2040, it is sensible for today’s health tech industry to plan on more inclusion for the future. Things are changing, Tecco believes, though she attributes some of that to the growing popularity of digital health and to the fact that “women’s health is an area that has been traditionally neglected comparatively, so there’s some catching up.”