Women are essential stakeholders in health care, serving as workers, caregivers, and consumers — yet we do not have an equal voice in its leadership.
The facts are overwhelmingly dismal. The percentage of women on Fortune 500 health care executive teams and boards has been nearly flat since 2015, hovering around 22 percent. Another number that hasn’t budged: Only one-third of hospital executives are women. There’s also been little change in the startup world, with women accounting for less than 12 percent of digital health CEOs and venture capital partners. Things just aren’t moving fast enough.
The Rock Health team has been surveying women and writing about the state of gender diversity in health care since 2012. But the tone is different this year. A palpable movement (#MeToo, #TimesUp, and others) has focused attention on this enormous problem that was previously whispered about only in break rooms. There’s a heightened awareness and motivation to create workplaces that support and advance all employees — perhaps that’s why we received more survey responses this year than ever before.
Health care has not been immune to the negative fallout of gender discrimination. In fact, #MeTooMedicine has become its own phenomenon, a place where women working in the health care space — from hospitals to venture capital and beyond (see the Appendix for the range of occupations) — have bravely shared stories of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. These cases have emerged from all levels of the health care workforce, ranging from gender discrimination against pharma sales representatives all the way up to top executives and tenured scientists.
And don’t get me started about the explicit objectification of women on display at industry events as recently as last month. Conferences must do away with booth babes, manels, and explicit dancers. There are better options.
The health care industry can take several actions to spur meaningful change. For one, the mission of gender equality needs to be amplified through communities. Our survey findings indicate that women who are part of a women’s support network or community give their companies a higher overall cultural rating. The same rings true for having a mentor or sponsor.
We overwhelmingly heard from women about the need for more women-friendly and flexible work environments. This means, for instance, replacing some of the boozy after-work networking events with lunchtime events that are easier for parents to attend. And developing parental leave policies that support all parents equally.
There’s no shortage of ideas from women on how to create better workplaces, and those ideas vary depending on the needs of the employees. I suggest that organizations get input directly from the employees who will likely benefit from the policies and programs.
Equally important, don’t require that women do all the (unpaid) legwork behind diversity and inclusion efforts.
The effort to improve gender parity in the health care workforce and beyond isn’t just about what’s happening today. It’s about the legacy we leave behind for those who follow in our footsteps. One survey respondent, Natasha Vianna of Honor, told us, “As a woman of color and mother, my unique experiences and perspectives are valuable and important in shaping an inclusive space for people now and in the future. Many women of color like me aren’t just thinking about growing our own careers today, but are changing the dynamic for other women, people with underrepresented identities, and young people who may follow us. There are many girls of color like my daughter who are interested in the field, but don’t get exposure to role models with similar backgrounds. Because of this, it’s important for me to be a strong advocate and visible role model so she and others won’t have to go through what so many of us had to.”
With enough women and men on board to fight for gender equality, we can find courage in each other and collectively spur a greater change. As Mary Anne Radmacher wrote in her survey response, “Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'”
And so we will.
Halle Tecco is a founder at Rock Health. She’s an early-stage digital health angel investor and an adjunct assistant professor of business at Columbia Business School. She has her M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University.