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Closing the gender gap in medtech

Dr Kristian Olson, Director of the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) at Massachusetts General Hospital Global Health, says closing the gender gap in medical technologies requires co-creation.


At Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), Suzanne Mbabazi stitches garments together for Ugandan women suffering from urinary incontinence. She stuffs the garments with cotton to build a prototype, but Suzanne thinks eventually she’ll replace the cotton with rubber to increase capacity. During the 5th Annual CAMTech Uganda Medtech Hackathon, she and her team, Safe & Dry, are innovating an affordable medical technology to address urinary fistulas that can occur after prolonged obstructed labor. This year’s hackathon in Mbarara, Uganda supported innovations to improve neonatal and maternal health in low-resource settings.

I recently commented in Public Health Post on the gender gap in medical technologies. The Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) published evidence of output in BMJ Innovations, and we noted how women are disproportionately underrepresented in innovating medical technologies compared to men. We found that only 23% of innovators participating at CAMTech hackathons identified as female compared to 77% who identified as male – and this in spite of our seeking balanced participation.

“I know that culture is changing,” said Dr Viola Nilah Nyakato, Dean and Senior Lecturer of Interdisciplinary Studies at MUST. “Women are moving into the men’s space in our setting, but men are not moving into the women’s space.”

To Innovate More Intelligently, We Must Engage Women

This inequity is not unique to CAMTech. According to Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, women are still disproportionately underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). If 600 more million women and girls had access to Information Communications Technology (ICT), the GDP would increase by $8 trillion in 144 developing countries. For us, this is a serious gap when we consider that taking a design-thinking approach, focusing on empathy for the user, is essential for developing better medical technologies and processes.

In the United States, women represent only 24 percent of the STEM workforce and earn 41 percent of the PhDs in STEM fields. The U.S. Department of Commerce calculates that women with STEM degrees are less likely than men to work in a STEM occupation, largely due to a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping and less family-friendly flexibility in STEM fields.

The 9th European Innovations Summit offers the global health community “an opportunity to reflect on how we can innovate more intelligently by making better use of available knowledge and resources.” To innovate more intelligently, we must engage women in STEM to make better use of not only their knowledge and resources but also their perspectives and ideas. Women may abdicate innovation because STEM fields appear to be male-dominated, particularly in low-resource settings. Closing the gender gap in medtech requires a multi-sector approach that truly emphasizes co-creation, not only between disciplines, but also between men and women.

A Political, Cultural, Social and Economic Return on Investment

From a design-thinking perspective, women are often more qualified to contribute to the design of products and devices aimed at sexual, reproductive, maternal and child health. A host of affordable medical technologies coming out of the CAMTech platform consider both culture and gender to reduce morbidity and mortality in underresourced settings. For example, NuWay is a safety passenger seat and handlebar being developed for women riding motorcycle taxis in Uganda. Typically, women ride sidesaddle due to cultural norms, making them less stable to hold on safely and at higher risk for falling off motorcycle taxis. The Shishu Healthy Newborn Kit, which creates a behavior change ecosystem around essential newborn care, and EcoSmart Pads, a low-cost sanitary pad made out of sugarcane, are innovations by women and for women.

We are seeing some progress. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that women comprise 75 percent of the health workforce. Previously, women only held eight WHO executive board positions, but more than 60 percent of the newly appointed senior leadership team are women under Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the WHO.

Moving similarly towards inclusionary medtech would have significant political, cultural, social and economic returns on investment, too. As Laura Herman, Lolita Castrique and Flynn Lebus of FSG note, companies will have a 27 percent higher return on equity and a 42 percent higher dividend payout ratio with women in more than 10 percent of key management positions. Women in the United States working in STEM fields earn on average 33 percent more than women working outside of STEM fields. In both developed and developing countries, women-headed households reinvest 90 percent of their wages in their families, while men reinvest 30-40 percent of their wages in their families.

Engaging men to close the gender gap

This is not just a women’s issue. Men, who currently dominate leadership positions, are equally important, if not moreso, to motivate closure of the gender gap. Closing this gap asks men to change mindsets and to continue the conversation about gender diversity in STEM fields. Change makers in medtech and global health must improve products, practice user-centered design and develop technologies that consider the gender of the healthcare workforce as end-users. In medtech, women will be more successful with attention to lasting support throughout the ideation, innovation, co-creation and acceleration phases in order to bring affordable – and readily adoptable – medtech to market.

We can start the conversation by highlighting women in medtech like Khilona Rhadia of Antrum Biotech; Dr Sumona Karjee Mishra of the KIIT-Technology Business Incubator; the entrepreneurs at Sisu Global Health; Shivangi Bajpai, a founder of VIT’s Creation Labs; and Grace Sweeney of Magyar, Bogle & O’Hara LLP. One can’t be what one can’t see, and highlighting these women and their successes serves as role models to those hoping to follow in their footsteps. Suzanne Mbabazi is one of those young women. She and Team Safe & Dry placed as First Runner-Up after competing against 250 innovators from public health, clinical medicine, pharmacy, engineering and business at this year’s CAMTech Uganda Medtech Hack-a-thon.

“Women are burdened with a lot of work, and for these challenges, women are creating solutions, and they’re living them,” Nyakato said.

CAMTech proudly champions women in STEM fields and supports women innovators in the development of affordable medical technologies. By seeking balanced participation in sourcing and identifying innovations, taking a design-thinking approach and highlighting women in medtech, CAMTech hopes to contribute to closing the gender gap in medtech.

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