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Why healthtech needs more female leaders

This article was originally published on Forbes.

As a female founder of a healthtech company, I often find myself in the minority. In business meetings or pitches, on panels at conferences or even just at networking events, it’s very unusual for there to be more women than men present.

Beyond my own personal experience, there is a wealth of data that shows that healthtech as a sector has a severe lack of women in positions of leadership: only 9% percent of healthtech startups are founded by women and women make up only 11% of partners in healthtech companies. In healthcare overall, we see a similar trend. Women make up over 70% of the healthcare workforce globally, and yet are significantly under-represented at the leadership level: just three in 10 C-level positions in healthcare are held by women, and just 13% of CEOs are women.

The reasons for this lack of diversity are complex and varied. Oliver Wyman consultants conducted research into this issue and found that there are a number of interconnected factors that make it harder for women to work their way up into leadership positions within healthcare organisations. For instance, it is often harder for women to achieve the same level of implicit trust in male-dominated workplaces; men are often trusted by default whereas women are not and have to work to achieve trust before they can be taken seriously. Similarly, the lack of diversity at senior levels colours what we perceive as ‘leadership’ behaviours; we are often conditioned to equate leadership with more stereotypically male traits, which makes gender bias self-perpetuating.

Diversity is good for business, and for healthcare

Whatever the reasons behind it, the gender imbalance in healthtech isn’t just a diversity problem - it is a business problem. Research shows that women are far more likely to be the primary healthcare decision makers, making on average 80% of all decisions when it comes to buying and using healthcare products and services. For any business, whatever sector you are operating in, you are more likely to be able to create products that people really want and need if the make-up of your leadership teams reflects your customer-base.

Of course, diversity in healthtech is also essential for reasons beyond commercial self-interest. It is vital to ensuring that we are getting the right medical outcomes. To take just one example: it wasn’t until 1993 that America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) made it a requirement for any government-funded health research to include women and minorities in clinical trials. Given that a lack of diversity in your test group is highly likely to skew the results, this is a clear oversight and one that I don’t believe would have been allowed to persist if the NIH had had more women at a leadership level. If the senior decision-makers within a business or industry have diverse backgrounds and experiences, then these kind of issues are likely to be picked up on and addressed far earlier.

The dangers of bias in Artificial Intelligence

As a founder of an AI health company, I am also keenly aware of the importance of diversity within the team when developing artificial intelligence solutions in this space.

On a technical level, AI can only ever be as good as the people and data it learns from. A lack of diversity in teams developing AI models may lead to biases in data that are not recognised and accounted for. An AI trained on biased data will simply amplify that bias in its own outputs. For example, it was found that IBM’s Watson was making recommendations for cancer treatments based on training by just a small number of physicians at one medical institution. By basing recommendations on the experience and opinions of a few, probably quite similar, people you end up with less scientifically robust outcomes.

Having diverse teams - in terms of gender, ethnicity, training and background - is therefore critical because it makes it more likely that unconscious biases will be recognised and addressed, rather than encoded within the next generation of AI technologies. This will in-turn improve the impartiality of the data upon which care decisions are based.

At Ada, we pride ourselves on having built a highly diverse team in terms of nationality (the current count is 37) and disciplines (our team is made up of clinicians, scientists, mathematicians, data scientists, engineers, designers and many more). When it comes to gender we have a more balanced team than many tech companies - currently our team is 45% female, 55% male. There are some areas where we are doing particularly well in hiring women. Our medical team, for example, includes more female than male physicians. However, across our product and engineering teams we still have room for improvement, with women only making up around a quarter of that team. We have made progress in the past year or so, hiring more women into our engineering, product, data science, AI and reasoning teams. This does require concerted effort and patience in hiring to improve the balance, given the relative availability of talent in the hiring marketplace in those areas - something that can be tough when a company is scaling fast - but we have noticed real benefits from that increased diversity.

Redressing the balance

So, given what we know about the causes, and the serious negative consequences, of the lack of gender diversity in healthtech, how as an industry can we start to address this challenge? Sadly there is no single cure to this particular problem, but there are a number of remedies that can make a big difference.

Firstly, we need to talk about it more! And not just as a problem for women, but as a problem that will have significant and long-lasting negative impacts for healthtech businesses and the clinicians, health services and patients they serve.

Having recognised the problem, business leaders and investors need to start educating themselves on how they can help to address it. Becoming aware of your own unconscious biases is a great place to start - you can then use this knowledge to start putting in place structures and processes that will break the cycle described above, where a lack of diversity becomes self-perpetuating.

At Ada, as well as improving the diversity of our engineering team, we also want to improve the balance at the most senior levels in the company. We are doing well at hiring women into director and head of department roles, and also at developing women and promoting them into those roles. However, there is still room for improvement at the executive and board level. As a female founder this is certainly something I see as a personal responsibility - to work with our board, HR department and wider team to strive for a better balance at those senior levels, particularly given the proven business benefits of doing so.

As an industry, we also need to make the process of seeking and securing investment a much more level playing field. Raising institutional investment is never easy (nor should it be) but the challenges are different for female founders and, until we can solve this problem, there will always be a shortage of women leaders in our sector. This is a huge topic in its own right however, so it is something I will discuss in more detail in my next article.

Finally, for those women already within healthtech, we of course have a major role to play. If a shortage of female mentors and a lack of networking opportunities for women is limiting the development of women leaders, then we need to work harder than ever to address this by speaking at conferences, attending events, making time to offer help and advice to other women in the sector and so on. These softer connections and ‘warm introductions’ are often critical to helping female founders to get advice, find the talent they need to build out their teams, or even get a foot in the door with potential investors or partners. There are many fantastic examples of where this is already happening across the industry but it will take a lot of time and effort to redress the structural imbalances that exist so the more each of us can do, the better.

We should also look for opportunities to reach out beyond the healthtech space and encourage more women to consider a career in healthtech. Whatever your discipline or background, there are so many opportunities to do great work and contribute to truly significant positive changes. I personally have never once regretted making the switch from clinical practice, and I would advise anyone who is passionate about innovation and wants to make a positive difference to seriously consider a career in healthtech.


Dr. Claire Novorol
Dr. Claire Novorol

Claire is Ada’s Chief Medical Officer and one of our co-founders.