While gender parity is a significant problem in healthcare broadly and health IT specifically, one area that has shown some reason for hope is digital health startups.
These companies have seen a boost in gender parity, with women making up nearly a quarter of the CEOs of digital health companies founded in 2016, according to Kristy Lindquist, co-founder and partner at Connecticut-based executive search firm Chasm Partners.
Lindquist pointed to a McKinsey & Co. study showing that having more women in leadership positions is not just “nice to have” but linked to stronger corporate performance.
“My own experience at Chasm Partners, where our team is 77 percent women, has proven to me the veracity of this report,” Lindquist said. “Having more women on our team makes us a more successful company.”
Moreover, the study found that companies with the most women on their management teams were 21 percent more likely to achieve above-average profitability, compared with those with relatively few women in senior, decision-making roles.
That’s not to downplay the gender inequity issue.
"Though research has illustrated a significant correlation between the presence of women in leadership roles and stronger corporate performance, the gender gap in America's C-suites remains frustratingly persistent," Lindquist said during a roundtable convened by Chasm Partners to gauge the state of gender parity in the healthcare IT space and to explore the benefits of gender diversity.
Roundtable speakers agreed that gender parity is most effective when it's a component of broader, organization-wide cultural change.
"Companies have to decide affirmatively that they care about this culturally or they will not attract and promote more women into leadership," said Lisa Suennen, senior managing director of GE Ventures and a founder of CSweetener, a not-for-profit organization that facilitates mentorship relationships. "There needs to be a concerted effort to change the culture and demonstrate that the commitment is real.”
The group discussed how women bring many different strengths to leadership roles, and those strengths are critical factors in their companies' success.
"I have seen that gender diversity can significantly impact the cohesiveness and collegiality of a board," said Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, a technology platform that optimizes individual and team-based resilience, performance and engagement through behavioral science and predictive analytics. "Women are often better listeners, more empathetic, and better able to relate to others, and at the board level, they are inherently accustomed to listen and learn, rather than dominate the conversation."
Dawn Owens, former CEO of Optum Health and now president of TripleTree, a healthcare investment bank that invests in growth-stage healthcare technology and services companies, added that women should know their own value and be their own advocates – and not be afraid to ask.
"Pick your head up – don't just be great at what you do, don't just be the reliable one," Owens said. "Rather, build relationships, invest in people and the 'soft stuff,' and don't hesitate to leverage who and what you know. Understand the broader context. It's OK to advocate for yourself; in fact, you have to, Know yourself."
Cathrin Stickney is encouraged to see the number of females leading the way in this field.
“I see this firsthand at NYU, where I'm an adjunct professor teaching a course I wrote called “The Making of a Healthcare Entrepreneur,” Stickney said.
This year, more than 80 percent of her class is made up of women. That’s double that of last year.
“Women understand that they are every bit as creative, talented, and competitively driven to make a difference as men are and are entering healthcare tech as a platform to express their determination to succeed on their own terms,” Stickney said.