Where are the Women CEOs in Health IT?

May 31, 2011
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The Health Tech 2011 Conference, held earlier this month in Boston, featured presentations from startup CEOs in the health and wellness space. The conference had nothing to do with gender issues or leadership per se. Yet the Twitter feed from the conference (#ciht11) contained this:

The Health Tech 2011 Conference, held earlier this month in Boston, featured presentations from startup CEOs in the health and wellness space. The conference had nothing to do with gender issues or leadership per se. Yet the Twitter feed from the conference (#ciht11) contained this:

@ml_barnett By my count, only 3 of 27 speakers are women. RT @taracousphd: where are the female entrepreneurs? It’s healthcare!!!

taracousphd and @ml_barnett reminded us of a painful fact. There aren’t many female CEOs in Health IT. Why is this?

Women certainly aren’t short on content knowledge in health care. In fact, they dominate men in this area. More than 40% of all practicing physicians and 50% of all medical school graduates are women. Women earn nearly 3 times more PhDs in psychology (useful content knowledge for startups in the space covered by Health Tech 2011). Nearly 94% of nurses and 74% of physical therapists are women, and they rule the workforce in public health, social services and pharmacy  as well.

The problem–and it’s a big one–has to do with the ‘IT’ part of ‘Health IT.’ In 2008, only 6% of Fortune 500 technology companies had female CEOs and 13% had women corporate officers of any kind, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Among tech startups that raised venture capital in 2009, only 4.3% were led by female chief executives. A recent Business Week list of the ‘best young entrepreneurs in tech’ included 45 people, only 3 of which were women.

Among the many explanations for the gender disparity among chief executives in IT, the 4 that make the most sense to me are these:

Women aren’t in tech, periodAlthough women hold 51% of all professional jobs in the US, they comprise only 26% of the IT workforce. The number of women in IT actually dropped by 76,000 between 2000 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Then again, if the gender disparity in Health IT leadership was a simple workforce issue, we’d expect from the data presented above that about 26% of tech CEOs would be women. Clearly there is more to the story.

Women are undertrained in tech-In 2006, only 15% of the people who took the computer-science AP exam were women. That’s lower than any other AP test. Similarly, only 18% of college graduates with computer science degrees are women, and the percentage of female PhD computer scientists is lower still. The latter statistic is particularly galling since these individuals frequently become entrepreneurs and have grant-writing skills and professional networks that can help them succeed. 

Closer inspection of those with advanced degrees reveals other relevant trends. For example, a recent study showed that while women faculty excel in research, they lag behind their male colleagues in patenting their findings, a behavior that renders them less able to start companies based on their research.

That in turn seemed to be driven by relatively poor contact with the private sector. Male academics tend to network heavily with folks in the corporate world and serve on advisory boards of for-profit companies, whereas female academics tend to remain within their academic confines and serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations or government panels. This means women aren’t exposed the contacts and the profit-driven perspective that might help them recognize a commercializable idea, and act on it.

There aren’t enough female mentors-Access to mentors has been correlated with entrepreneurial success. Anecdotally, female executives that had access to mentors often claim they were critical to their success. But since there aren’t that many women who have succeeded as entrepreneurs in health IT, there isn’t a lot of gender-specific mentoring available. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

There aren’t enough female venture capitalists-In a 2002 study, Myra Hart found that venture capital firms with women as partners were more likely to fund startups with women serving as chief executives. Unfortunately, women comprised only 9% of management-track venture capitalists, and the turnover rate among them was higher than for men.

Beyond these factors lies a morass of issues pertaining to gender identity and child rearing responsibilities, factors that many believe to be the most important of all. Next Monday, I’ll cover these matters and review some promising efforts to reduce the disparity.

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