building an equitable future for female leaders in health, science and biotech

This article originally appeared on Forbes

By: Jill Collins, CEO

As a scientist and CEO of a woman-led and ‑owned health and science agency, I am honored to count myself in the growing representation of women leaders in healthcare and biotech-related businesses. In 2021, women represented about 23% of biotech CEOs and about 15% of health system CEOs. And for the first time in U.S. history in 2023, 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women.

While women in STEM may have finally broken the glass ceiling to achieve leadership roles, the reality is that now those leaders are standing on a glass floor. It feels like simultaneously paving the way forward and being held back, because many steps still include continued gender bias and unfair expectations, requiring extra effort not to slip.

In the wake of the Theranos scandal, female founders of health and biotech startups are still struggling to distance themselves from disgraced founder Elizabeth Holmes. Even if their company is completely unrelated, female founders find themselves extra scrutinized when trying to secure funding due to this inescapable negative comparison.

I wonder, what could our impact be if women in health and science could lead while standing on a solid foundation and not a glass floor? Here are four ways I believe we can transform the playing field for gender equity.

1. Reframe your mindset, regardless of your gender

There’s a reason that popular workshops through organizations like Athena include overcoming imposter syndrome for women leaders in STEM. Research has documented that not only are women seen as worse scientific leaders, but in some fields they are even stereotyped as not having a necessary innate talent.

These aren’t facts. These are deep-seated socialized norms we must confront and actively challenge, because it can impact whether or not potentially life-changing research, products, or voices are seen and heard.

Regardless of your gender, I encourage you to approach your interactions, thoughts, and decision making with curiosity. Simply by noticing and asking yourself, Why did I come to this conclusion?” can go a long way to challenging internalized biases for women leaders in health and science.

2. Prioritize investing in female leaders

Funding female-owned companies can provide essential resources needed for success. Yet in January 2023, startups founded by women were awarded 17.6% of total U.S. VC funding — but only if they were co-founders with men. Female-only founded companies? They captured a mere 2.5%.

One perpetuated myth that may contribute to this staggering difference is the female underperformance hypothesis. However based on evidence, CEO gender is not predictive of performance and should not be a factor for VC investment.

Investing in female leaders doesn’t just have to be financial, especially if you are a leader yourself. There are incredible science-centered organizations, resources, and community spaces where you can find support, where examples include the aforementioned Athena and entrepreneurs like Halle Tecco and Ruby Gadelrab Tutor..

3. Provide pathways for the next generation

Women are still incredibly underrepresented in leadership, and carving out a stronger path to leadership through an organizational approach can help advance progress faster. Unfortunately, according to IBM’s women in leadership study, despite increased awareness of gender equity, there are now fewer women on the path to executive roles compared to 2019.

So what can we do? Effective organizational processes that support women’s career advancement include: committing to implementing policies and fair processes, providing structured opportunities in the context of a positive culture, and improving work-life balance. There’s also power in numbers — just through increasing visibility of women leaders and the support and advocacy from men, other women found motivation and opportunity.

4. Be unapologetic

Like many I have felt the need to prove my credibility and merit either to avoid assumptions or to keep imposter syndrome at bay. And this can impact your mindset and confidence, ultimately trickling down to behavior. If you are guided by a fear of being perceived as not knowledgeable or capable, it can prevent you from speaking up or taking action.

If you need a small place to start, begin by asking questions where you may otherwise refrain. Clarification can empower you to equip yourself to engage and provide the best possible solutions. Because I have found that reception to your expertise and leadership is not from having all the answers, but from engaging in discussion openly, honestly, and deeply.

While ultimately, it shouldn’t be just on women to change our behavior or the system that may be fueling our experiences (see point 1 on reframing mindsets), it can still be empowering to recognize and affirm what is true: you deserve to be in your position. You have permission to be unapologetically you. You are capable — that is where no questions need to be asked.

Our Future is Female

Achieving gender equity in health and science leadership is not about increasing numbers for the sake of reflecting population ratios; it’s about filling a critical gap in unique perspective, capability, and expertise that can ensure a healthier, safer future for everyone.

Despite barriers, women in leadership roles have continued to pave the way to successful outcomes. Countries that were governed by women during the peak of COVID-19 had fewer deaths per capita. In business, female CTOs are driving more economically significant innovation compared to firms with male CTOs. Even overall, companies whose executive leadership is 30% women are more likely to outperform those with less.

It is a privilege to be a CEO in an industry that supports life-changing innovation. But I can still see through the glass floor, and I don’t want to be part of a few women who made it. I want to lift up other brilliant women in health and science, where we can lead together on a path that provides solid footing for everyone.

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