Gender equity progressing at a 'snail's pace' at digital health startups, VC firms, Rock Health report finds

It will take nearly 100 years to reach gender parity among healthcare venture capital partners—and that's if 50% of new hires are women starting today.

That's according to projections by venture fund Rock Health based on its recent research into gender diversity in healthcare leadership.

For its annual report on gender equity, Rock Health surveyed more than 200 people working at healthcare startups and venture capital firms about efforts to promote the advancement of women. The company also spoke with 15 leaders in healthcare including startup CEOs, VC partners and leaders focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion within the sector.

"Progress continues to come slowly, and the data on gender equity offers a sobering look at just how far we still have to go to reach a world in which women and men are equally represented, treated, and compensated in business," according to report authors Claire Liu, Megan Zweig and Natalie Yu.

RELATED: Women only make up 30% of healthcare executives. Here’s a look at why 

Women continue to occupy just a fraction of leadership roles in healthcare despite making up 65% of the healthcare workforce.

Among Fortune 500 healthcare executive teams and boards, U.S. hospitals, healthcare VCs and digital health startups, gender equity is improving, but at a snail's pace, they said.

Fortune 500 healthcare company boards made the most progress by increasing female representation from 22.6% in 2018 to 26% in 2019. U.S. hospitals continue to have more women represented at 37.1% in 2019. 

Healthcare startups and venture capitals made the least progress—the percentage of female partners at VCs only increased by 0.4 points to 12.6% in 2019. The percentage of deals closed by female CEOs of digital health startups increased by just 0.6 points from 13.4% in 2018 to 14% in 2019.

Rock Health projected how long it will take each of these segments to reach gender parity. Healthcare boards will wait 72 years to reach 45% women in leadership, if, starting now, half of the open leadership positions are filled by women.

Parity comes more quickly if women are hired at a higher rate than 50%.

RELATED: Survey—Majority of women working in healthcare don’t expect parity for 25 years 

Most of the startups and venture capital firms represented in the survey do not have initiatives in place to support gender equity, according to the report. Those initiatives include flexible work arrangements, women’s communities and employee resource groups, and unconscious bias training.

Researchers also found inconsistencies between the initiatives most likely to be in place versus those deemed to be the most effective. Some of the most common workplace initiatives, such as informal mentorship and women’s communities, are not effective, according to employees surveyed.

Initiatives deemed by employees to be the most effective—addressing pay inequity and sponsorship—are rarely implemented among startups and VC firms.

"These gaps can serve as a starting point for leaders and employees to discuss the effectiveness of current initiatives, and what might be missing to make a difference in employee engagement and advancement," the report authors said.

There is a silver lining: Industry leaders and employees believe gender parity can be achieved within their lifetimes, according to the survey.

Nearly 80% of women believe they will see gender parity in the workplace within 25 years, the survey found. Male respondents seem to be slightly more optimistic than women: 54% of men respondents believe gender parity will be reached within 10 years, compared to 38% of women respondents.

RELATED: Report: Women like to work in healthcare, but barriers to advancement remain

Areas of success

Some startups are taking innovative steps to address equity and diversity. Cityblock Health and Omada Health executives, for example, use a third-party employee feedback and analytics platform to understand how their employees feel about company culture and what improvements they could make.

OODA Health turned to a gender consultant who interviewed employees to understand the perspectives, gender biases and blind spots that might be holding certain groups of employees back from reaching their potential. 

The report offered tactical tips from investor and startup leaders for building a workplace supportive of gender equity:

  • Start early: Companies need to prioritize creating a culture of diversity and inclusion from the outset. "Shifting from a company that’s 90% white male to one that is 50-50 even after a year of operations is going to be a major challenge with serious implications," said Elli Kaplan, founder and CEO of Neurotrack.
  • Be committed to diversity goals and accountability: "[A lack of diversity] is just something that reflects what’s happening in our wider society. If you don’t actively counter that culture, you’ll wake up one day and see that your team lacks diversity not because you’re a bad person but because you didn’t fight the tailwinds of the prevailing culture,” said Toyin Ajayi, co-founder and chief health officer at Cityblock Health.
  • Have transparent expectations and salary ranges: Stick to explicit salary bands to help prevent unconscious gender bias from finding its way into negotiation discussions, the report said. Also, clearly communicate role expectations and what is required to reach the next level.