I’m proud to be the executive vice president of a medical device company I co-founded 16 years ago. I love my industry and the innovative changes it creates that improve people’s lives around the world.
And yet I’m dismayed to see how few female executives there are in the medtech and biotech industries — roughly 1 for every 4 male executives and senior officers. That imbalance is bad for women and the future of these industries, because women make up half of the population and represent more than half of health care consumers.
Despite positive changes in family responsibilities and greater shared parenting, in most households women are still the primary decision-makers when it comes to family and health. Like all industries in which the leadership doesn’t mirror the consumer base, the gender mismatch in the medtech and biotech industries can contribute to suboptimal health care products and services because women can see health care perspectives and opportunities differently than men.
As a result, if women aren’t empowered to build and grow health-related organizations, then an untold number of people will be at a serious disservice and innovation in the medtech field and health care industry at large won’t grow as it should. Patients simply will not benefit without the unique expertise and knowledge of both men and women.
There are many ways to close this gender gap. Here are a few of the strategies that we’ve put in place at my company, Ra Medical Systems. We had the chance to start early, since the company had both a female and male co-founder — gender equality at the top of the organization sets the tone of equal responsibility, accountability, and participation that have cascaded throughout the company:
Everyone is heard. The best solutions emerge when all employees, male and female, are confident and secure that their voices are heard. Men and women are expected — not just permitted — to contribute equally. We encourage active communication, participation, and collaboration, with no heed paid to gender, and we’re able to do this because we are truly gender blind when it comes to expectations for all of those things.
Be flexible. Flexible work schedules make it possible for women and men to perform their best at work while fulfilling their responsibilities at home. We employ women and men who are the primary care providers of their families. Through enabling flexibility across genders at work, we can all excel in our domestic and professional obligations simultaneously. None of us should have to choose between the two.
Work in teams. At Ra Medical, women and men work side by side in production teams to manufacture excimer lasers and catheters to treat skin diseases and open blockages to restore blood flow in arteries. Patients’ lives are on the line, and producing perfect medical devices is a shared imperative for all employees, regardless of gender. This approach applies to all of the company’s departments, as each component of the organization must work in harmony for us to make effective and trustworthy medical devices.
Transparency rules. It’s essential to be committed to transparency, especially in hiring. We do not hire individuals based on gender alone, even if we are striving for equity in our workforce. We hire for skill and cultural fit. We do individual and group interviews so hiring managers and executives have visibility of all of the candidates, and there’s a consensus based on shared criteria. This ensures that no one can have a hidden agenda as it pertains to gender.
While company leaders can create microcosms of equality in their own shops, all of us need to play a role fostering environments to cultivate female leaders in all workplaces. Women need to showcase their accomplishments and speak up when they have answers or solutions. Women must also demand answers for their continued professional education and development.
I was fortunate to be nurtured and taught that the sky was the limit to what I could achieve. I had parents, teachers, and other mentors who believed in me and instilled in me the confidence to try and the freedom to innovate. When it came to the medtech world, though, I didn’t have a mentor — there weren’t any. Somehow I was able to figure out the industry and make my own place in it.
To help girls and women believe in themselves, use their voices, and demonstrate their talents at every level of their education and career, female executives and their male counterparts need to implement shadowing and mentoring programs, including more skill-building opportunities and training. As an executive who is pulled in a dozen different directions all day, I know it’s hard to take the time to invest in the development of future leaders. But if we take the time to mentor young women, they will take our industry further than we ever envisioned.
Success is not created when we silo ourselves in our own organizations. I urge my colleagues to cross-pollinate with executives in other industries, share best practices, reach beyond their comfort zones, and seek out contributions from men and women alike. Put everyone around the conference table — and on manufacturing line — equally. This will deliver greater success for women, which will translate into an aggregate growth and strengthening of our industries.
Having worked in health care for almost two decades, my conviction is that companies with diverse viewpoints, experiences, and talents deliver superior innovations that benefit health and wellness. The gender mix cannot be out of balance with the population if we truly want to deliver better health for all.
Melissa Burstein is co-founder and executive vice president of Ra Medical Systems, a California-based medical device company.