Thought leadership from our experts

Closing the gender gap in the healthcare industry

Women are (still) underrepresented at the top of many industry ladders at international level, despite being a key contributor both as work force and as consumers.1 This is also the case in the healthcare industry, where top female presence remains minimal at the CEO level and low at the executive management board level.2

While some actions have already been put in place to achieve gender equality in the healthcare industry, others should be encouraged to consolidate and advance the progress made thus far in order to achieve real equality with male peers. This must start not only by achieving equality in terms of salary (an absolute requirement if real equality is to be met), but also by granting women their place all along the corporate ladder at companies and healthcare institutions, including up to the top managerial and leadership scales. Female presence at managerial and leadership positions has indeed shown to achieve stronger corporate performance3, as women contribute not only the professional skills necessary to perform the required role but also soft relational skills that can be key to business success. Such soft skills may indeed be key in an industry that is becoming increasingly relevant due to extended human life expectancy (and the occurrence of chronic diseases), and where women drive the majority of household healthcare related decisions and might (unconsciously) feel better understood by other women sharing their same health related concerns.

There is therefore much room for improvement in order to fully get the benefits of female contribution to business. With that in mind, companies and healthcare institutions should indeed commit to building positive working environments through gender diversity and inclusion policies. These policies should be part of the corporate culture and be designed to fight and raise awareness on gender bias and close gaps. In particular:

  • They should ensure fair recruitment processes in all business areas out of a diverse gender (as well as racial and ethnical) pool, including providing equal salary and excluding any unjustified pay gaps between men and women with same qualifications and experience and that will provide the same corporate function.4
  • They should also provide adequate career development opportunities to women in order to raise women's visibility all along the corporate ladder both internally and externally.
  • Companies and healthcare institutions should also include leadership and mentorship programs, notably led by female managers acting as role models for other women: These programs aim to support women in advancing their expertise and careers in order to get to top leadership positions, for example by fostering their communication skills, while simultaneously receiving their feedback about the real impact of the company's or institution's gender diversity and inclusion initiatives in their career prospects. They are particularly relevant not only for women performing roles focused on legal, marketing, and human resources positions but especially for those performing roles in areas with good prospects of career development that have traditionally been filled by men, such as technology, or in areas with an academic background under-represented by women, such as mathematics or engineering.
  • Importantly, compatibility between profession and maternity remains an essential issue and must be adequately addressed in the company's and institution's internal policies to ensure that the career prospects of women in child-bearing age, pregnant, or on maternity leave will not be penalised.
  • Furthermore, companies and institutions should promote gender equality and fight against discrimination, by having an in-house gender diversity and inclusion department (or a specific person in charge thereof) as well as processes to measure gender diversity and inclusion targets (including accountability in case of non-compliance). The exchange of best practices among companies and institutions can also be helpful in achieving a successful gender diversity policy.
  • Awareness and prevention campaigns on sexual and mental harassment and any other inappropriate behaviour at work should be organised, and be transposed into the internal policies. Such policies should include reporting procedures with measures to ensure whistle-blowers sufficient and adequate protection.

For their part, governments should provide the necessary social and economic support backing up corporate policies, in particular those policies prohibiting discrimination and gender-based violence, fostering female presence in the entrepreneurial and scientific area, as well as policies economically supporting extended maternity/paternity leaves. In this respect, global healthcare companies may also need to harmonize their internal policies regarding healthcare insurance in order to provide their females employees with the same opportunities worldwide.

For gender diversity and inclusion initiatives to be successful, the female work force, especially women in managerial and leadership positions, should be first advocates in supporting these initiatives within the workplace. Male colleagues must of course also commit to the cause, in particular by raising awareness on the existing (unconscious) bias against female professional success, and by implementing actions to fight against such bias – such as being held accountable for the company gender diversity goals. Finally, commitment from the company's top management and from the board remains a priority so that the additional value brought by gender diversity and inclusion is not only encouraged but permeates into the company's and/or healthcare institution's culture.

To conclude, the push for gender diversity and inclusion in all industries, including healthcare, will indeed promote equality in decision making and help boost business performance by better representing and connecting with the (healthcare) community.5 Beyond the business requirement, it is also the social and corporate responsibility of companies to support any and all evolution against any form of discrimination or inequality which cannot be tolerated and are only the reminiscence of ancient times. To achieve this, it is essential to obtain the support of the entire corporate community, including corporate senior ranks as well as female leaders, which are in a privileged position to advocate for and connect best with female corporate colleagues as well as with female patients/consumers. Advocacy and support from the entire company or institution would indeed certainly help setting up the necessary structural changes in terms of corporate work organisation and culture, which are crucial in achieving participation and fostering female leadership6.


  1. In October 2017, women accounted for just a quarter (25.3 %) of board members in the largest publicly listed companies registered in EU Member States. France (43.4 %) was the only Member State in which there was at least 40 % of each gender at board level, a figure that has most likely been achieved as a result of the introduction of a legislative quota in 2011 requiring companies to meet a 40 % female presence target by January 2017. (European Commission (EC) Report on equality between women and men, 2018, page 31).
    For its part, in 2017 female CEO presence in US Fortune 500 companies was scarce (6.4% in the overall industry, minimal in healthcare) and low in boards (only 20.2% in the overall industry, 22.1% in healthcare companies), with none of the Fortune 500 healthcare companies having gender balance on its executive team (22.6%) (Rock Health venture fund survey, Women in Healthcare 2017: How does our industry stack up?).
  2. To illustrate, female CEO presence at the pharmaceutical industry is minimal (with a few welcome exceptions such as Emma Walmsley in GlaxoSmithKline and Heather Bresch in Mylan) and remains scarce at executive management boards (such as Freda Lewis-Hall as Pfizer EVP and chief medical officer, Shannon Klinger member of the executive committee of Novartis and general counsel, Elizabeth Barret member of the executive committee of Novartis and CEO of Novartis Oncology, and Jennifer Zachary member of the executive committee of Merck Sharp & Dohme and general counsel).
    This is also the case in biotech where women fill only 7-9% of the chief executive roles (such as Jane Griffiths as global head of Actelion) (Business Insider, Meet the women under 40 unlocking new ways to treat diseases and shaping the future of medicine. 2017 data).
    In that respect., according to the digital health venture fund Rock Health survey for 2017, of over 300 women in the US healthcare industry, nearly half (45.4%) of respondents believe it will take 25 or more years until we achieve gender parity in the workplace, while 16.1% do not believe gender parity will be achieved. (Women in Healthcare 2017: How does our industry stack up?).
  3. Companies with women on managerial positions in US companies are 21% more likely to achieve above-average profitability compare to those with fewer women (McKinsey & Co., Women in the Workplace 2017 study).
  4. In 2016, women's gross hourly earnings were on average 16.2 % below those of men in the EU, with huge gap between countries (5.2 % in Romania to 25.3 % in Estonia) (Eurostat – Statistics explained. Gender pay gap statistic, March 2018, page 1).
    In France, the average annual salary for women is 24% lower than for men (17% for full-time jobs). Furthermore, the average annual salary for women in France is 8% inferior to men's under equivalent professional skills (and 12.8% inferior for equivalent function and experience). In general, women are less represented than men in those sectors with higher average salaries and in managerial positions (14.7% versus 20.5% for men). In addition, women are overrepresented in the health/social sector (87% of the nursing work force), and one over two doctors in the short term will be a woman. Data also confirms that women are well represented in administrative tasks (accounting, financing, human resources) while being underrepresented (30%) in IT, digital, sales, engineering or R&D (30% female researchers). (Modes d'emploi – Figures for inequality men/women in 2018. Data referred from Women and men, equality into question – Insee 2017 ed. Figures for all industries.)
    In the US, according to the digital health venture fund Rock Health survey for 2017, of over 300 women in the US healthcare industry, nearly half (45.4%) of respondents believe it will take 25 or more years until we achieve gender parity in the workplace, while 16.1% do not believe gender parity will be achieved. (Women in Healthcare 2017: How does our industry stack up?).
  5. 5 EC 2018 Report on equality between women and men in the EU, page 31.
    Financial stability also needs more gender balanced leadership. In this respect, key financial institutions at both EU and national level are largely run by men, even if research suggests that monetary policy generates more stability when more women are involved in the decision-making process (EC 2017 Report on equality between women and men in the EU, page 31).
  6. 6 EC 2018 Report on equality between women and men in the EU, page 15.