Female Founders Speak Out on Gender Parity


41% of founders and co-founders at this year’s StartUp Health festival were female. Here’s why this matters for (both female and male) healthcare leaders.

Jacqueline DiChiara and Terry Stone

9 min read

Healthcare is an industry where women make 80 percent of purchasing decisions. It’s also an industry with a mostly female (65 percent) workforce. Despite this, women are far and few between at healthcare’s top leadership ranks – most (87 percent) of healthcare’s Chief Executive Officers, for instance, are male. When women in healthcare do become Chief Executive Officers, it generally takes them three to five years longer to do so compared to men.

One question Oliver Wyman remains focused on, especially as the idea that a diverse workforce drives deeper levels of innovation gains traction across (male-dominated) C-suites like those in healthcare: WHY is this happening?

According to research Oliver Wyman and HLTH published last year – Women as the Heartbeat of Healthcare – the gap between female C-suite decision makers and the decision-making female consumers exists because of unconscious biases that impact all (both female and male) workplace perceptions.

Gender Parity Already a Key 2020 Focus

This idea of how unconscious bias promotes gender parity in leadership specifically held top spotlight at this year’s StartUp Health Festival during J. P. Morgan Healthcare week. Here, 41 percent of portfolio company founders and co-founders in attendance were female. (This was out of over 2,200 guests and 275 founders representing 35 countries.) Our Oliver Wyman team interviewed some women within this 41 percent roster to learn more about their experiences tied to our research. Here are four key takeaways women told us regarding the WHY behind gender parity in healthcare leadership.

1. The Bad News: Women Got a Late Start

“I believe there are so few women leaders in healthcare because gender inequality was the norm for so long. Women got a late start and shifting the old values of the patriarchy is hard,” said Jessica Corbin, Co-Founder, Revita5.

Female leaders are expanding how others perceive them and are working to redefine the standard concept of leadership.

“The current movement for women has two sides: one, you should be a professional woman, juggle everything, and work up the ladder. Two, you should stay at home,” said Alexandra T. Greenhill, MD, Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and Chief Medical Officer of careteam. “But a woman’s life is about choice. It’s not about feeling a certain way or following a certain norm,” she emphasized.

Said Shireen Abdullah, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Yumlish, the hard absence of female leaders and female mentors is something she’s observed throughout her entire career – from the public sector to the private sector.

“Across all industries, there has been a lack of female leader mentors, in part because women don't fit the leader ‘norm’ and because of deep-rooted biases about ideal leaders,” Shireen explained.

But women – who are often the matriarch in most homes (and the ones making most healthcare buying decisions) – should be represented and valued among leadership in healthcare institutions. “More female representation will better solve some of healthcare’s toughest problems,” emphasized Chrissa McFarlane, Chief Executive Officer of Patientory, Inc.

2. The Good News: Progress is Tangible

Outdated stereotypes for what women “should” be as a healthcare leader are changing.

“There is a heightened awareness – especially since ‘Me Too’ – about the unconscious biases that exist. I believe people are trying to course-correct,” said Jessica of Revita5. She explained her general work environment is supportive of a more female-led industry. “On the whole, I am surrounded by men wanting to balance the scales and use their knowledge, contacts, and power to support great ideas that support humanity’s evolution.”

Women also pointed to how there are more regulation pushes happening in recent times. “Over the past decade, there has been a reasonable increase in opportunities for women, especially with legislation mandating women on boards,” said Mia Nease, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Multiomic Advisory Services.

3. But…Men and Women Still Have Differing Workplace Perceptions, Ones That Unconsciously Shape Promotions

Optimism aside, much more needs to be done. According to our research, for instance, women and men have very different leadership perceptions – ones which end up unconsciously driving future promotional decisions. For instance, women value an emotionally intelligent, communicative leader. Men, however, tend to value a commanding leader.

This finding resonated loudly among those we spoke with.

“One male investor told me I needed to sound ‘more confident’ and be ‘more cutthroat’. He said I had so much heart, but not enough confidence. Not a single female investor said that to me,” said Andrea Wilson Woods, Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder, Cancer U, a company with a 75 percent female founding team. “This got me thinking – does my big heart somehow minimize my confidence or intellect in the eyes of men? I am fully confident I can do what I propose,” she asserted.

4. In the End, We’re All in this Together

We discussed the notion of confidence as well as the role of mentorship with several female executives at StartUp Health. According to Oliver Wyman research – Women in Healthcare Leadership – although the confidence gap and imposter syndrome are often cited as what holds women back in business, most women don’t lack confidence. Rather, they appear to simply have different views on what it means to be competent. Men see “winging it” as more acceptable than women. Seeking funding and negotiating early were examples cited of where this came into play. This isn’t surprising in a world where women overly rely on “checking all the boxes” because they haven’t had as many opportunities to leverage affinity that is developed in male-dominated networks like funding and investments. As Kelli Thomas-Drake, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of MyPurpleFolder notes. “People in leadership positions tend to be the most supportive of people who remind them of themselves and look like them.”

Improving these initiatives and overcoming the invisible barriers that hold women back is vital to healthcare’s transformation. Especially given decisions made and executed by diverse teams deliver 60 percent better results. Noted Kelli, "Really there is no ‘them’ versus ‘us’ – we are all in this together, to make a positive impact in healthcare.”

For more information on our gender parity research, read Women as the Heartbeat of Healthcare and Women in Healthcare Leadership.

  • Jacqueline DiChiara and
  • Terry Stone