At the leadership level in biotech and life sciences, women are outnumbered. While more than 80 percent of healthcare workers in Canada are female, only 31 percent of executive team members and 23 percent of CEOs are women. The numbers are even lower for Indigenous women and women of colour. And according to one report, women in healthcare make considerably less than their male counterparts.
Given all the challenges of the global pandemic, the healthcare system has never been more stretched. And over these last three years, Brigitte Nolet, president and CEO of Roche Canada has seen the impact women leaders have. “When there are challenges, when there are tragedies, women show up,” she says. “When the world is in crisis, we have that ability to lean in.”
Now, as the health sector works to rebuild as the pandemic slowly recedes, the natural skills of women leaders are critically needed, Nolet says. She recently joined experts in several healthcare fields for a special MaRS Morning event, which was created in partnership with HBA Canada. Here are some of their insights.
Whether it’s about investing, hiring or programming artificial intelligence algorithms for healthcare, having diverse voices around the table leads to more informed decision-making. Without it, equity is impossible. “When we don’t have that representation, we don’t have the perspective, we don’t have the empathy, we don’t have the decision-making that helps us make sure we’re representing the stakeholders — whether they’re our employees or our patients,” says Rebecca Repa, executive vice president of clinical support and performance for the University Health Network. “There’s lots of evidence to suggest that when women sit on teams, the financial outcomes are better, the economy is better. When they’re not there, we won’t see the transformation that we need to see.”
Healthcare equity is gender equity. Informal care — the majority of which largely falls to women — is equivalent to $25 billion in unpaid labour in Canada’s healthcare system. Chenny Xia, co-founder and CEO of GotCare, says that if society can’t internally change its relationship to care work, “there’s no chance” for gender equity. “If you have someone who takes care of a child or an aging parent and you have someone who goes to work and is the ‘breadwinner,’ as a society we naturally value one over the other,” she adds. “That’s the part that we need to change.”
When men are involved in gender inclusion programs, 96 percent of organizations see progress versus 30 percent of progress in companies when men aren’t a part of the conversation, a report from the Boston Consulting Group found. “Equity is about both,” says Nolet. “If there are more men in leadership positions now, how do we change the conversation if they’re not part of it?”
Sanjana Basu, an investor with Radical Ventures, credits her success in part having a father who encouraged her and “took no shame” in helping with tasks that typically fell to women. “I think my biggest competitive advantage is not my education, not the work I’ve done, not the organizations I’ve worked in but the role models I have — having partners and other allies who support us and don’t reinforce stereotypes.”
Artificial intelligence — which is playing a growing role in healthcare — is only as good as the data that it’s fed. To ensure that biases in healthcare are not perpetuated, oversight and regulation are essential, says Ashley Casovan, executive director of the Responsible AI Institute. “Making sure you have data that’s representative of the population that you’re going to apply it to is really important,” she adds. “We’ve learned a lot from the hands-off approach that regulators took with social media. Enforcing this is the role government should play.”
“We are more data-rich than we have ever been and more insight-poor than we have ever been,” says Repa. That data could be put to great use, she adds, speeding up, for example, the recruitment phases for clinical trials. “We have to shorten the time frame so we can get innovation to the table.” The public system is notionally tied to the concept of partnerships with the private sector, she explains, but existing procurement policies make it challenging at times. Dissipating the lines between private, public and not-for-profit sectors is key.
“Embracing equity and moving women through leadership positions is not going to happen if we all work in silos,” Nolet says. “It’s about all of us coming together and recognizing that we’re going to go further, faster.” In doing so, she adds, “Canada’s healthcare system is going to benefit, innovation is going to benefit, women are going to benefit, men are going to benefit. I think that’s a very wonderful thing.”
On May 3 and 4, MaRS hosts its annual health innovation summit, MaRS Impact Health. Several sessions highlight women’s health leaders who are targeting persistent health and wellness gaps for women. To see the schedule and reserve your ticket click here.
Photo credit: MaRS Discovery District