U.S. women in medtech trail behind their male peers in leadership positions. U.S. women in all S&P 500 companies hold almost 45% of all professional-level jobs, and 26.5% have achieved executive/senior level management jobs. Not so in medtech.
More than 300 medtech executive women at the level of director or higher were sent a short 10-question online survey. Sixty-one shared their perceptions of the barriers to entry for women with careers in medical devices. These executive women reported that, at their companies, the average number of women holding positions of vice president or higher was 21%. However, a more in-depth analysis tells a very different story. When outliers are excluded (in four companies with women in more than 60% of executive positions) the average dropped to 17%. The median was 12%.
The first version of this survey was conducted in 2015 and sent to almost 100 medtech executive women. Twenty-four women responded. In the 2018 survey, our 61 respondents came from a much broader distribution across the United States and some European countries. The respondent list originated in the Northeast of the United States in 2012, and the Massachusetts medtech hub is well-represented. In the future, our goal is to add many more respondents from other medical device clusters, such as in Minnesota, California, and outside the United States.
Tough and Tender Talk From Our C-Suite/Board Member Respondents
We got tough talk from female medtech executives about life at the top of the food chain. The message received was that the journey is different depending on your target. If you want to be a CEO, expect many challenges, including giving up a piece of your personal life. While the road has been difficult, the C-suite and board-level respondents shared lessons learned along the way. These quotes are inspiring and reading them was a key benefit of administering the survey. The 61 executives provided almost 200 pieces of wisdom, such as the following:
Women who have made it to the C-suite or boardroom were understanding and had empathy for women who are beginning or still growing in their career journeys:
Words of Wisdom and Advice From All Respondents
Our medtech executive women know that hard work does pay off, but they also advise women to develop a personal skillset mixed with the abilities to deflect negativity and be credible, positive, and proactive. One respondent mentioned the need to be kind, noting that kindness and empathy go a long way toward building strong relationships:
How Did They Do It?
There is a new set of skills that needs to be learned while advancing in your career. Politics, strategy, persuasion, vision, and influence all matter. According to one C-level woman, “Nothing can replace the importance of hard work and initiative, but it is also important to develop strong relationships. While having technical skills is very important, soft skills are critical for success, especially as you move further up the ladder.”
The Big Obstacles
It is not easy to be at the top. Many respondent quotes spoke of loneliness, vulnerability, and loss of mentoring. Additionally, the traditional challenges of women in the workforce still exist. Echoing the 2015 survey results, medtech executive women in all levels still feel the lack of gender parity.
On the plus side, once medtech women achieve executive management positions, 59% believe that they have as much power and respect as their male peers.
The Toughest Pay-Grade Jump
Making the jump to the next level of management is tough for all. When asked, “What was the most difficult job transition in your career and why,” there were mixed results. Many CEOs and vice presidents indicated that the transition to director was a difficult move.
Equally as many vice presidents indicated the same for the transition to vice president.
Is This Problem Systemic for Healthcare- and/or Technology-driven Industries?
Comparing findings from our sister industry, pharmaceuticals, shows that the number of pharmaceutical female executives also lags the S&P 500 at 17%, the exact percentage as seen in our medtech survey. Other high-tech companies, such as Google and Tesla, show the same disturbing trends. Silicon Valley high-tech industries have the same imbalanced gender ratio as medtech, according to an article in the New Yorker. Studies estimate that women comprise only 25% of employees and 11% of executives in the high-tech industry. In 2015, a survey of 200 executive-level women in Silicon Valley titled “The Elephant in the Valley” found that 84% of respondents had been told they were “too aggressive” in the office, 66% said that they had been excluded from key events because of their gender, and 88% had experienced unconscious bias in multiple forms.
In many ways, the medtech business mirrors high-tech and pharmaceuticals. Although a much smaller industry, medtech attracts talented engineers, managers, and strategic thinkers and pays them well. Our survey doesn’t answer the questions raised by comparisons to pharmaceutical and high-tech, but the similarities are thought-provoking.
What Can We Do to De-Clog the Pipeline?
Some medtech executive women spoke with empathy towards younger women wishing to climb the corporate ladder and made suggestions as to how to help increase the talent pool:
Women in Medtech Practice What They Preach
Although the median of 12% executive women in the medical device industry is disturbingly low, further investigation of the survey shows that the women at the highest levels practice what they preach. When a woman sits in the corner suite, the number of executive women climbed steadily from a median of 15% from the entire group to 29%.
Change is Coming
Unconscious bias affects us all. Unconscious bias is best defined as a social stereotype about groups of people that we form outside of our own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from our tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values.
One of my medtech friends was her own strong advocate for her promotion to vice president. She presented facts and data about her performance to her manager, and when he challenged her by asking, “Why are you so focused on becoming a VP?” she replied, “Shouldn’t I be? Being recognized for the work I do is important, and I need to advocate for myself.” She had the courage to overcome his unconscious bias, landed the promotion and title, and was given a new range of important projects. She got a well-deserved boost in her career because she asked for it.
The data from the Medtech Executive Women’s Survey validate a belief that we have all shared: that a glass ceiling exists for women in medtech. However, with work and commitment, a positive change is on the horizon. Find a mentor, speak up, be clear and concise, and support your opinions with data.