The lack of women in high-ranking medtech positions is nothing new. But is there change on the horizon? With the rise of a new sector dedicated to female health products and devices – femtech – Lu Rahman asks whether this might help boost the number of women in healthtech careers?
I’ve worked in the medtech sector for over three years and in that time, it’s still a male dominated world at the top. Visit some trade shows, exhibitions or conferences and sometimes you might wonder where the women are.
It’s a strange one. In many areas of science women are well represented. Take medicine. According to the Kings Fund, numbers of women in medicine have grown considerably in the last 15 years and now make up more than half of all medical students. But when it comes to technology-based healthcare, or running medical device or medtech businesses, the number of women holding board-level jobs is disappointingly low.
According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, the uptake of STEM GCSE subjects in boys and girls, is largely equal. However, only 20% of physics students at A level are female and only 9% of the engineering workforce is female, says the Women’s Engineering Society.
Last year WISE, the campaign for gender balance in science, technology and engineering in the UK looked at the number of women on FTSE 100 boards. It noted: “In this year’s list, there are only six companies across the FTSE 100 with only one woman on the board and 60% of companies now have more than two women on the board of directors. Within the STEM sector the number of companies reaching this milestone has increased significantly since 2015. However, the STEM sector still lags behind the non-STEM sector where 65% of companies have hit this benchmark.”
In the US, Rock Health’s The State of Women in Healthcare reports are worth reading. In 2015 Halle Tecco, covered an update on the report:
“Despite making up more than half the healthcare workforce, women represent only 21% of board members at Fortune 500 healthcare companies. Of the 125 women who carry an executive title, only five serve in operating roles as COO or president. And there’s only one woman CEO of a Fortune 500 healthcare company.
“We know from our funding data that women make up only 6% of digital health CEOs funded in the last four years. When we looked at the gender breakdown of the 148 VC firms investing in digital health, we understood why. Women make up only 10% of partners, those responsible for making final investment decisions. In fact, 75 of those firms have ZERO women partners (including Highland Capital, Third Rock, Sequoia, Shasta Ventures). Venture firms with women investment partners are 3X more likely to invest in companies with women CEOs. It’s no wonder women CEOs aren’t getting funded.”
Importance of role models
It’s disappointing reading and it would be easy to focus on the negatives. However, one of the key drivers to encouraging females into top jobs, is the ability to draw upon positive role models. The life science and medtech industries might not boast the same level of female numbers as the medical profession but there is a raft of women in high level careers providing inspiration for the younger generation to consider a healthtech-based career.
The WISE website is a great source of information and inspiration. Featuring role models such as Siobhán O’Connor, lecturer in nursing informatics, University of Manchester, it helps encourage young women into science tech -based roles.
O’ Connor says: “In particular, the digital health field has been growing exponentially over the last number of years. Even though it is still in its infancy the possibility of applying all sorts of technology, from mobile apps, to various Internet services, social media, wearable technologies and the emergence of Big Data and the Internet of Things, is huge and is why I now love working in health technology.”
Is the answer femtech?
There’s a new term on medtech tongues, femtech – health technology aimed at the female market. We’ve seen years of products dedicated to the male section of society but with more or less half the population made up of women, there’s clearly an unmet need. According to Venturebeat the term femtech came from Ida Tin, founder and CEO of Clue, a period tracking app.
As materials become increasingly sophisticated and sensor technology continues to advance, these can be used in a range of medical devices and wearables aimed at the female market, particularly pregnancy and family planning. And the femtech market is big business – said to be worth $55bn in 2015 by KPMG.
Products such as the Priya Ring highlight how the market has taken advantage of technology. Described as offering a ‘level of precision that no other ovulation prediction method can’, the ring device features a sensor that monitors temperature to detect changes that take place before ovulation, alerting the wearer when they are at their most fertile.
Stella Wooder, head of project management, Team Consulting, has picked up on the rise of connected female devices. She commented: “Connected devices focusing on women’s health are still relative neophytes, and it is not yet clear what the future holds. My prediction (perhaps more of a hope) is that connected devices may help make ‘routine’ screening programmes for cervical cancer, chlamydia and HPV, for example, more robust.”
The cervical cancer market is a significant opportunity for connected medical devices. One of the most recent to hit the headlines has been the ‘pocket colposcope’ developed by a team of researchers at Duke University, North Carolina. When the digital health disruption first arrived, patient empowerment was a real buzz phrase and this device aims to do just that. By connecting to a laptop or a smartphone, say its developers, it could eventually be used by women to self-screen for cervical cancer. According to the university, over 80% of the volunteers that tried the device said they were able to get a good image.
As the femtech market opens up, there’s a chance it could have huge appeal to younger women’s career options. There are already many women heading up some of these new and exciting companies. The brains behind the Ava fertility bracelet is Lea von Bidder. Designed for personal and professional healthcare use, the bracelet is designed for women who want to monitor their health when trying to conceive.
Speaking to About Time magazine, von Bidder outlined her journey in femtech: “I deeply care about women’s health and see it as one key component to women’s empowerment – this cause has always been something that deeply mattered to me. My interest and involvement has increased since I left university for the professional world, where we still clearly experience the lack of women in higher positions and founding roles. Helping women manage their cycle and giving them accessible, precise insights about their health and wellbeing won’t solve workplace equality issues, but it can help.”
Tania Boler is one of the co-founders of Chairo and a clear role model for the younger generation. With a Phd in women’s health, and having held a range of leadership positions such as global director of research and innovation at Marie Stopes, and team leader for HIV prevention at UNESCO, Boler is behind the Elvie, a connected silicone device designed to improve women’s pelvic floors. The product has received extensive media coverage and fans apparently include Khloe Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow, according to City AM.
In an article with the site, Boler’s insight into women’s healthcare highlights why the female perspective is valuable in this area.
“Medical devices, particularly for women, are kind of really uncomfortable, difficult to use, very utilitarian in their design so for us what we’ve done with the first product and what we’re doing for future products is all about taking kind of neglected medical devices and turning them more into consumer products that people like to use,” she told Francesca Washtell.
Similarly, CEO of The Flex Company, Lauren Schulte, used her own desire to find an alternative to the tampon, to create a medical device company. She told Forbes:
“In the last 80 years, we’ve put a man on the moon, we’ve invented television, we’ve invented the internet, we’ve mapped the human genome, and we’ve still seen no change. The tampons that were made in the 1930s are still by and large the same product that we use today.”
The Flex is made from medical-grade polymer and has been designed to offer a range of advantages over normal tampons. According to the Independent, the company, which has had wide-ranging media coverage, raised over $4m (£3.06m) in 2016.
Things may not be about to change overnight but the growth of the femtech market may hold real potential when it comes encouraging young women into medtech careers. The future of femtech looks exciting and the more we can do to boost the number of females into healthtech careers, the better. Let’s hope that over the next three years, we start to see a real change in the sector…