New Survey Highlights “Lethargic Pace” of Healthcare Gender Equity

Xconomy National — 

To close the healthcare and life sciences gender gap, there have been programs to move women into the boardroom. People are building mentoring networks. And there have been public pledges to do better.

But women in the industry aren’t optimistic about big changes coming soon, according to a new report and survey from digital healthcare investment firm Rock Health. The San Francisco firm, which also issues reports and advocates for the growing sector at the intersection of health, data science, and mobile communication, says it surveyed more than 300 women for its annual gender diversity report.

More than 45 percent of respondents believe it will take 25 years or more to reach gender parity in the workplace, and 16 percent say it will never happen. Only 7.5 percent said they could see parity happening in the next five years.

Eighty percent of American healthcare workers are women. But from Fortune 500 boardrooms to the venture investors fueling cutting-edge startups, women are conspicuously rare in leadership roles. According to the report, there are no female CEOs among the Fortune 500 health companies, which include drug makers, distributors, insurers, and laboratory test firms.

Elsewhere at the top, 22.1 percent of Fortune 500 board members are women—slightly higher than the Fortune 500 overall (20.2 percent). But as in the private and public biotech sectors, which the recruitment firm Liftstream has surveyed in recent years, there seems to be little improvement. “At this rate,” writes Halle Tecco, Rock Health founder emeritus, “we won’t reach 50/50 gender parity on healthcare boards until 2049.” That timeline jibes with Liftstream’s 2017 report on public biotech firms.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rock Health dug into the sector it knows best: digital health startups and the investors who fund them. Those data are mixed. On the positive side, new startups, a tiny sliver of the overall healthcare landscape, have a relatively high number of women CEOs, at 24 percent. (Rock Health counted firms founded in 2016 with at least $2 million in funding.) That’s more than double the total of digital health firms funded since 2011, which have nearly 10 percent women in the top executive seat.

But the positive trend line doesn’t apply to digital health investors—who poured more money into the sector through the first three quarters of this year than in any other full year on record. Of the 131 venture firms that have made five or more bets in the digital health space, women comprise 10.9 percent of partners, a drop from the 11.4 percent Rock Health tallied in 2015. And 61 percent of these firms have no female partners at all.

Women comprise about half of the rank and file in biotech. In healthcare overall, 80 percent of employees are women. Many diversity efforts are focused at the top of the corporate pyramid. For example, a board-training program that began inside Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) is now open to all. It has capacity for about 20 women a year.

To build personal and professional ties, venture veteran Lisa Suennen launched a mentor network called C-Sweetener last year. She wants it to be a “ for mentors,” with women signing up to connect with experienced life science veterans—both men and women—who have C-suite experience.

Asked about Rock Health’s numbers showing a relative boom of women CEOs in digital health, Suennen said she had not noticed the trend, but she would be thrilled if it’s true. “Perhaps because these new companies deal so much in patient empathy, communication and behavior change, they lend themselves to a more balanced gender sensibility,” Suennen said.

Credit: Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash