The long and winding road to gender parity in healthcare

I’m proud of the strides the healthcare IT industry has made in recent years toward gender parity, but it’s important to keep in mind that we’ve got a long way to go.

The concept of gender parity – in the healthcare industry and in Corporate America – began receiving some long-overdue attention earlier this year with a humorous, but also embarrassing, headline from Stat about the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, one of the industry’s most prominent annual events. The article, headlined “Men named Michael outnumber female CEOs presenting at #JPM18,” noted that 22 men named Michael were scheduled to give company presentation, compared to 20 women. Overall, men represented 94 percent of the 540 people presenting these “high-profile corporate updates” at the conference.

Of course, the problem of a lack of female representation in corporate boardrooms is nothing unique to healthcare. An April New York Times headline, “The Top Jobs Where Women Are Outnumbered by Men Named John,” provided a stark reminder of how far away the business world remains from gender parity. The Times reported that, among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, the total number of females is exceeded by the amount of men named “James” (though contrary to the headline, not “John”).

Humorous headlines aside, it’s time to acknowledge that the lack of gender diversity at the top of American businesses is stifling women and hurting the businesses themselves. A McKinsey study earlier this year that examined 1,000 companies across 12 countries found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. The implication: Everyone pays when women aren’t invited to a seat in the board room.

Encouraging signs in health IT
For years, I’ve attended health IT events and conferences, and been struck with the thought of how few women are present in the audience. However, my personal observation is that I’ve recently begun to see more women at these events and I’m encouraged by the entrepreneurial spirit many women are showing in founding startups.

For example, a report by Rock Health found that women make up nearly a quarter of the CEOs of digital health companies (with more than $2 million in funding) founded in 2016 – a significant increase over previous years. For example, among all such digital health startups founded since 2011, women represented less than 10 percent of CEOs.

Personally, I can attest to the impact that nonprofit advocacy groups and woman founders have had on influencing the industry’s leadership trajectory. Groups such as Csweetener and Parity.org are raising awareness about gender disparity, fighting for equal representation, mentoring the next generation of woman executives and demonstrating that women are every bit as creative, talented, and competitively driven to make a difference in the industry as men.

Frustrated by the slow pace of change
Though the McKinsey study quantified the direct correlation between companies with women in leadership roles and greater profitability, progress in gender parity has remained frustratingly slow – and the risk is that women are becoming discouraged by the sometimes-glacial pace of change. For example, nearly half of the 300 women surveyed in the Rock Health report believe it will take 25 or more years until we achieve gender parity in the workplace. More upsetting is that greater than 16 percent said they believe gender parity in the workplace will never happen.

We must reverse this type of thinking before it proliferates further. The first step is that women need to be cognizant of the valuable skills they bring to the executive suite. Women executives not only tend to possess strong strategic thinking skills, but they are frequently better listeners, more empathetic, and are more able to relate to others. At the board level, female executives – in my experience – show a tendency to listen and learn and desire to build consensus as opposed to dominating the conversation to push through their own ideas.

It’s all about the network
I’m occasionally asked for advice – from men and women – about how the heath IT industry overall can foster a more woman-friendly environment. The quick and dirty answer is that everyone who cares about this issue needs to support each other. Never stop building your network and establishing relationships with industry veterans who can provide mentorship. Take action, take charge, know your value and speak up.

The reality is that there is no one single, magic-bullet solution that will solve the industry’s lack of gender parity. We need all of the above approaches and more, to counter a trend that has been decades – if not centuries – in the making. But one thing that experience and my own two eyes have taught me is that gender diversity brings important benefits to any leadership team that create more successful companies – and I didn’t need a study from McKinsey to be convinced of it.

Kristy Lindquist is Co-founder and Partner at Chasm Partners.

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