Women in medtech: Making gains but not there yet

women in medtech

[Image courtesy of MIT]

Sarah Faulkner/Associate Editor

When IBM Watson Health general manager Deborah DiSanzo, a 30-year medtech veteran, began as a project manager at Apollo Computer, there were plenty of women working beside her.

Three decades later, DiSanzo said, “I can now point to one woman who’s still in medtech from that.”

The anecdote illustrates the continuing gender imbalance among medtech executives. Data published in a survey conducted by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. show that women hold 45% of entry level positions but only 19% of C-suite roles. For every 100 women promoted to a managerial position, 130 men climb up the ladder, according to the study.

Problems start as early as engineering school: Negative group dynamics during team-building activities make the engineering profession less appealing to women, according to an MIT study published last year. For women who continue into the medical device industry, it appears that team activities remain a challenge well into their professional careers.

Appearing on a panel at MassDevice’s DeviceTalks Boston event last year alongside DiSanzo and InfoBionic CEO Nancy Briefs, Rotation Medical CEO Martha Shadan remembered a company event featuring activities geared toward her male colleagues: paintballing or mountain biking. Briefs said that she and colleagues were once offered a choice between golf, cigars or running a half-marathon as a part of a corporate event.

The disparity between men and women in medtech is narrowing as more women take leadership positions, DiSanzo and Shadan noted. IBM Watson Health’s executive team is 40% women, according to DiSanzo, and Shadan reported that 40% of Rotation Medical’s employees are women and three of them are in the C-suite. All three executives said they enjoy great relationships with men in their field and that, most of the time, they feel respected. But there’s still room for improvement – and it’s not just about correcting the gender imbalance, they said.

“If you just look at the statistics, they say the more inclusive, the better their performance,” Briefs noted. “I think performance at the end of the day in the business is what we’re all driving for.”

“It is important to have more women, but I think fundamentally it’s important to have divergence of thought,” Shadan added.

Make a plan for diversity—and stick to it.

Halt Medical president & CEO Kim Bridges – the only female CEO of a women’s health company – said that if firms want to encourage women and make their staff more diverse and inclusive, they have to have a plan. Otherwise, it’s all just talk.

“Saying, ‘We value diversity,’ and saying, ‘We value women,’ and saying that, ‘We have succession planning,’ a lot of times just end up being words on slides,” Bridges said. “My suggestion for companies is to put a plan together. And if I’m Medtronic, or if I’m Boston Scientific, or if I’m one of the big companies, it’s a metric, just like all the other metrics you look at.”

Executives we spoke with also highlighted the importance of mentorship in molding the next generation of women leaders. Briefs said she tries to mentor at least two women annually who are in the early stages of their careers. Bridges thinks that creating mentorship programs for women and minorities – and sticking with it – is one of the best things a company can do, noting that many mentorship programs come and go with leadership changes, or they aren’t funded or supported.

Mentorship programs and open-door policies between executives and employees go a long way toward creating an atmosphere in which employees feel comfortable enough to share their ideas freely.

“I think that it starts at the top, in terms of creating a culture where it’s valued for women and diversity to thrive in the company,” Bridges said. “We have an incredible opportunity with a lot of really smart women to bring them along, and we have other women who are blazing the trail right now. My hope is we can capitalize on that trend and be mentors.”

Don’t be afraid to ask if you want to advance.

At 36, Jennifer Palinchik is an accomplished biomedical engineer and the president of a medical device consulting firm, Jalex Medical, in Westlake, Ohio. Part of the reason she has advanced so quickly, Palinchik said, is that she wasn’t afraid to argue her case.

“I think a lot of women can be intimated by asking for something that they rightfully deserve,” she said. “You have to have that confidence. I have been in many, many rooms and presentations where I am the only female or there’s maybe three or four of us in a room of 100. I think that I know just as much as the majority of the people in there, whether they’re male or female.

“I actually have a very good camaraderie with some pretty significant leaders here locally, as well as across the nation,” Palinchik said. “On the flip side, sometimes I’ll be speaking with somebody and they’re extremely surprised at my role and my title because of my age. It’s like, ‘Well, I do have 15-plus years of experience in this field.’”

Palinchik echoed the other executives in arguing that companies that want to be disruptive should seek out candidates who don’t fit the status quo.
“There’s a lot more talent that you can tap into that could really bring a different perspective than a certain age-level male in these leadership roles,” she said.

And although Palinchik agreed that things are improving for women in medtech, she added that there’s more to be done. “I think that over some time it’s definitely going to be more a level playing field across both genders,” she said. “It’s going to take some time for women to get the experience to really take their expertise to the next level.”

“We have to talk about it until it goes away,” Bridges added. “It’s just like sales numbers. If you stop talking about the sales numbers, they’re going to stop coming in.”

Heather Thompson and Brad Perriello contributed to this article.

Hear from top executives at Abbott, Google, Boston Scientific, Medtronic and more at DeviceTalks Minnesota, June 4–5 in St. Paul.

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