The Leaky Pipeline: GenderDisparities in Healthcare Innovation

Why is it that healthcare, one of the largest industries in the country, tends to leave women behind in its efforts to move forward? The answer to this loaded question is rooted in the educational norms that trace back to the lower school. Growing up, female role models in science were scarce. We learned from Bill Nye in class, turned to Sal Khan for homework help, and in our free time, followed Jimmy Neutron’s inventions on TV. It is naïve of society to expect young girls to relate to these examples. The incongruent gender representation projected on children filters out girls from pursuing biomedical careers. As a society, we turn to the research community to advance the field of medicine and create new ways to live healthier lives; however, this community has been predominantly composed of men, causing a deficiency in healthcare innovations tailored to women and their unique health needs.


It is evident that cultural norms dampen girls’ interest in STEM, and that male stereotypes are misinforming girls about what their roles in the future could be. Research has been conducted exploring children’s gendered stereotypes relating to these academic disciplines. One 2006 study led by the U.S. Department of Education looked at the process of stereotype stratification and concluded that according to children, mathematicians and scientists are “nerdy” men who wear glasses. In this study, children were asked to draw a mathematician or scientist and girls were twice as likely to draw men as they were to draw women, while boys universally drew men in lab coats [1]. Children have a very skewed interpretation of who is capable of studying STEM, and this misinformation has far-reaching consequences.


These stereotypes manifest themselves further in college, leading boys to pursue degrees in STEM fields at dramatically higher rates than girls. Data collected between 2015- 2016 reports the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to females was higher than males, however, in STEM fields, 36% of degrees were earned by females whereas 64% were earned by males [2]. This pattern feeds into professional functioning where the gender gap grows even more. In prestigious labs throughout the country, male graduate students have historically outnumbered female students by two to one, and male postdocs outnumbered female postdocs by more than three to one [3]. Further, these esteemed labs serve as major feeders to junior faculty positions at top research institutions, leading to only 27% of research publications being authored by women in the last 60 years [4]. These statistics show how our conformation to gender norms fuels our futures. Maledominated leadership in the healthcare industry has led to gender imbalances in clinical trials, a lack of gender-specific medicinal guidelines, and a dearth of innovation in healthcare technologies intended specifically for women.


The significant disproportion of women in science, particularly in professional-level biomedical research science, has been termed the “leaky pipeline ” [5]. According to the leaky pipeline concept, there are more men positioned in areas determining the future of the healthcare industry, and therefore determining what health problems need modernizing. This means that there is a maledominated perception of what needs in healthcare exist. The people making up this majority do not menstruate, do not use contraceptives, and do not give birth. Innovations in health including devices, tools, therapeutics, diagnostics, etc. are excluding women because there is a lack of representation of female’s pain, and there are limited efforts made in the field to gain a deep understanding of complications that arise from the intricacies of female bodies. Symptoms and diagnoses that are specific to females are often regarded as exceptions to the norm, and efforts to expand this norm are limited. This leads to women's health being unstudied and underfunded. If menopause affected men, would there be medication by now?


If there were more women in positions of power in healthcare, then the industry would be able to better react to the health needs of both males and females. We need updated, equitable and holistic perspectives in positions driving the industry forward. Large corporations and investment communities are eager to get involved in the new wave of innovation that is beginning in healthcare. Companies not even remotely related to healthcare are investing in life science real estate including lab and incubator space in up-and-coming hubs throughout the country. The inventiveness in the healthcare ecosystem is disproportionately focused on making health more streamlined, accessible, and proactive. While discoveries such as genetic sequencing and biosensors certainly save lives, give people more control of their own health, and increase the overall quality of life, it is still concerning how many methods in women’s health remain archaic and untouched [6].


The women’s health market is gaining more attention and is preparing to undergo revolutionary changes, hopefully ridding the space of outdated procedures and tools. Reproductive health is becoming a central focus for many startups, especially because this market appeals to women of all ages [7]. Women’s bodies navigate several key transitions throughout a lifetime which creates a need for specialized solutions addressing the myriad of health complications that these changes inflict on the body. Disruptive technology in women’s health is needed, and it is uplifting to learn that many startup companies agree. Norms are actively changing, and women are staying in higher-up positions longer, giving rise to new role models every day. Sealing the leaks in the healthcare pipeline will be no easy fix—it will need to be repaired from the bottom up, stemming from the curious minds of young girls who understand that they are capable of anything.


References:

1) Steel, J. (2006). Children’s gendered stereotypes about math: the role of stereotype stratification. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 33. (12), 2587-2606. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2003.tb02782.x

2) U.S. Department of Education (2020). Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, by gender. National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=899

3) Trafton, A. (2014, June 30). Research reveals a gender gap in the nation’s biology labs. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. https://news.mit.edu/2014/research-reveals-gender-gap-nationsbiology-labs-0630

4) Machado, T., Callahan, M., Esomonu, E. (2020, March 5). Do women publish less than men in scientific fields? turns out, scientists have been asking the wrong question. News@Northeastern. https://news.northeastern.edu/2020/03/05/do-women-publish-lessthan-men-in-scientific-fields-turns-out-scientists-have-beenasking-the-wrong-question/ 5. 5) Sheltzer, J., Smith, J. (2014). Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women. PNAS, 111.(28), 10107-10112. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1403334111 6. Copeland, B.,

6) Raynor, M., Thomas, S. (2021). Top 10 health care innovations: More value, better outcomes, for less. Deloitte. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/life-sciences-and-healthcare/articles/top-10-health-care-innovations.html

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