Skip to Content

Why healthcare isn’t as female-friendly as you think

Doctors and nurses working at a hospital.Photograph by Getty Images/Tetra images RF

There’s no shortage of stories about the lack of women in tech or venture capital. But if there’s one field that’s been thought of as a shining light for women, it’s healthcare.

A pair of new reports, though, show that the healthcare industry is a long way from achieving real gender diversity—both in the ranks of upper management, and among the rank-and-file. “The numbers are still so sad,” says Halle Tecco, a founder of Rock Health, the early-stage venture capital firm that issued one of the studies.

First, some background: women account for 78% of the healthcare labor force. When Fortune put together its list of the 10 best companies for women, six of the 10 were hospitals or healthcare systems. Plus, it’s an area that deeply affects women’s daily lives: Women make up to 80% of the healthcare decisions for their families, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

However, those numbers start get a lot smaller when you look at hospital leadership. The new report from Rock Health found that women make up 34% of executives at the top 100 hospitals, as identified by healthcare data firm Truven Health Analytics. These hospitals also have fairly lopsided boards, with women holding 27% of seats.

And things aren’t much better for the female staff of these institutions. New research released Tuesday revealed that male nurses make, on average, $5,100 more per year than female nurses in similar roles.

When you broaden the focus to consider healthcare companies as a whole, the gender dynamic becomes increasingly skewed. According to the Rock Health report, women account for 21% of executives, as well as 21% of board members, at Fortune 500 healthcare companies. Only one woman, Mylan’s Heather Bresch, is CEO of Fortune 500 healthcare company. Not surprisingly, tech-related healthcare companies are a particular sore spot: The report also found that a mere 6% of the digital health startups that have raised at least $2 million in capital since 2011 are led by women.

“The fact that women are making the majority of healthcare decisions makes us especially disappointed that they haven’t been able to penetrate the leadership of these companies,” says Halle Tecco, founder of Rock Health.

To be fair, healthcare is still well ahead of most industries. Many of these organizations provide excellent female-friendly perks, like flexible schedules and strong maternity benefits. And their gender diversity stats, while imperfect, still beat those of many big companies. But as Tecco puts it, just because the field is outpacing corporate America, doesn’t mean they numbers aren’t “sad.” As these reports remind us, there’s no excuse for getting complacent.

To subscribe to Kristen Bellstrom’s daily newsletter on the world’s most powerful women, go to