Posted: 06 Apr. 2023 5 min. read

Can women break glass ceilings in health care/life sciences?

By Lynne Sterrett, RN, National Consulting leader for Life Sciences and Health Care, Deloitte Consulting LLP

March was Women’s History Month…a month where the vital roles women have played throughout American history are celebrated, and their ongoing contributions to society are recognized.1 While women have made many important contributions to the health care and life sciences sectors, they still generally play a rather limited role in terms of leadership.

Among biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, women make up nearly half (46.4%) of all employees.2 However, just 8% of those organizations are headed by women, according to a review of nearly 200 companies.2 On the medical technology side, women make up close to 40% of the workforce, but hold only 23% of executive roles among the world’s 100 largest medical device companies. Just six of those companies are headed by women now—one more than in 2021.3

Leadership positions in the broader health care field are also dominated by men. In 2021, 15.3% of health system CEOs were women, and 15.8% of health plans were headed by women.4 By contrast, about 90% of chief nursing officers, and more than 70% of health system human resources executives, are women. And while a majority of physicians in the United States are men (64%), the number of female physicians is growing, and the number of men enrolling in medical schools has been declining since 2016, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In 2022, women accounted for more than half (56.5%) of medical school applicants and 53.8% of the total enrollment in US medical schools.5

STEM degrees, mentors, and role models

I am cautiously optimistic that more women will move into positions of leadership in health care and life sciences. Here’s one reason: Several large tech companies have made public commitments to improving gender diversity, including increasing women in their technical and leadership ranks.6 Here’s another: A growing number of women are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math/computer science (STEM). While women accounted for just 45% of students pursuing STEM degrees in 2020, that percentage is up from 40% 10 years earlier, and 34% in 1994.7 Over the past 50 years, the percentage of working women with a college degree has quadrupled. Women now account for nearly 60% of undergraduates and make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce.8

Women currently hold just 27% of STEM-related jobs nationally.9 But opportunities for women may be growing. By 2031, more than 1 million additional STEM workers will be needed, according to federal estimates.10 But along with STEM degrees, future health care and life sciences leaders are likely going to need role models, mentors, and programs that can help set them on a path toward leadership. I encourage women who are now working in STEM to look for opportunities to mentor girls and young women and expose them to possible careers in health care and life sciences.

Rising Leaders Collective

Deloitte has long been committed to supporting women. Nearly a decade ago, we launched the Rising Leaders Collective to recognize and support a group of emerging women leaders. The program spans women in the technology, media, life sciences, health care, and consumer and industrial products industries. We are optimistic this initiative will help provide women with an opportunity to connect to a network of peers and mentors while attending sessions throughout the year focused on industry trends and professional development.

Women in Technology series

Deloitte’s Women In Tech Program is intended to help our female consultants gain a better understanding of AI, Cloud, and cyber to create more value for our clients. When we launched this program three years ago, the intent was to empower our female practitioners to drive interest in this areas to help increase the number of female technology leaders. The program includes self-study as well as some group activities. Once participants complete the six-month course, we try to align them with positions where they can build on what they’ve learned.

Women can help lead us into the Future of Health

Deloitte’s envisions a Future of HealthTM where the consumer is at the center of the universe. Non-traditional companies that enter this space could have     more leadership diversity. While traditional life sciences organizations have long been male dominated, non-traditional companies seem to be more likely to be led by women. Among start-up medtech companies, about 15% of CEOs are women.11

While March was Women’s History Month, the achievements women have made in health care and life science should be celebrated year-round, and their potential as leaders in the health care and life sciences realized.

Latest news from @DeloitteHealth


1 Women's History Month, March 1—March 31

2 Gender inequity in drug industry, little progress on female CEOs, Business Insider, June 30, 2021

3 Medtech Big 100: The world’s largest medical device companies, Medtech 100 Index, Medical Design & Outsourcing, 2022

4 Study Finds Women Only Make Up 15% of Health System CEOs, HealthLeaders, November 30, 2021

5 The nation’s medical schools grow more diverse, Association of American Medical Colleges, December 13, 2022

6 Intel plans to double number of women, underrepresented groups in leadership, HR Dive, May 18, 2020; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Amazon’s 2021 DEI goals, Press Release, June 10, 2021

7 Women achieve gains in STEM fields, April 7, 2022

8 Too few women in STEM threatens our economic future, Chicago Sun Times, February 24, 2023

9 Women making gains in STEM occupations but still underrepresented, United States Census Bureau, January 26, 2021

10 Employment in STEM occupations, Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment projections, September 8, 2022

11 Share of women in leadership positions at MedTech startups still low in 2022, MedTech Pulse, August 9, 2022

This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor.

Deloitte shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person who relies on this publication.

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