The Female Innovator's Dilemma

by LeAnna J. Carey

The Female Innovator's DilemmaThis tweet by Mashable technology journalist, Jolie O’Dell, did not go unnoticed but just in case you missed it, take a look.   My first thought was that O’Dell certainly understands the power of social networks but her viewpoint of women entrepreneurs is simplistic.   I’m writing this as a co-founder of a mobile health company and as the partner that has not even come close to doing the heavy lifting.  The senior partner, Virginia Gurley, is a physician innovator and woman who has taken an idea and nurtured it into the terrible twos.  The past two years have not been a cakewalk and both of us would do it again.

I asked some women CEOs, whom I respect, to estimate how many women innovators there are in healthcare, and the general consensus was less than 10%. This number might not be too far off the mark.  The 2010 Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors of the Fortune 500, revealed that women in the United States held only 15.7% of all Fortune 500 board seats and 18% of leadership positions across 10 sectors, including business, politics, and media.

The McKinsey’s Women Matter 2010 report revealed that companies with more women in their executive committees have better financial performance, but also acknowledged that gender diversity is not a strategic priority.

How does this information translate for women in the biosciences, which include medical devices and instruments, pharmaceuticals and agriculture drugs, hospitals and laboratories, and research and testing?

For one, in a bioscience study the data revealed that women value innovation and diversity of thought and talent. Unfortunately, the study also showed that throughout the career progression of women in biosciences, gender inequities were present from the moment women sought degrees in sciences and continuing throughout their careers.

This information shows less than a promising path for women to trail blaze into the market and innovate.  The question is then, in light of these business realities what drives women to push through with little or no support? Consider Fast Company’s 2010 list of the ten most influential women in technology, and what these women had in common is they did not wait for the market to change to build something.  Whether these women are less risk adverse, persevere more, or embrace creating change, they went for the stretch and innovated their way to being a top 10 by creating their own pathways.  In the biosciences, Fiercebiotech posted their 2010 top women – which one, Katrine Bosley, is the CEO of Avila Therapeutics, a cancer drug company.

The notion that women need to stop starting business’s of any type reduces all of us to an expectation that we need permission to succeed, rather than making a commitment to compete for the future.  Willingness to jump into an uncertain economy with or without the support of other women should not surprise us – what drives women innovators and entrepreneurs is thinking differently about the current landscape.  I thank Jolie O’Dell for her comment, she made me stop and take a look at where women, as a collective, really stand.  From where I stand, we are not there yet, but I’m far from embarrassed.

[1] Rachel Soares et al., 2010 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors (Dec. 2010).

[2] The White House Project Dinner: White House Project examines, honors the role of innovative women in culture (Apr. 2010)

[3] Rachel Soares, et al., McKinsey & Company: Women Matter 2010 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors

[4] Anika K. Warren, Catalyst 2011: Checking the pulse of women in bioscience: what organizations need to know.

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LeAnna CareyLeAnna Carey is the Healthcare Editor for Innovation Excellence, the principal of TheHealthMaven, LLC, and co-founder of a mobile healthcare company, AuraViva. Lea hosts a radio show and can be found on iTunes where she interviews healthcare entrepreneurs and innovators at

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  1. I may be a voice of one, but I know many women who are incredibly creative and innovative.
    Here are a few examples of some who have built businesses around their innovations.
    Rubber Sidewalks – dreamed and implemented by a woman who was pained by seeing all the trees being cut down because their root systems were ruining the pavement.
    Pampered Chef – grown by a woman who thought kitchen implements could us a tad of improvement
    Spanx – Founded by a woman who took a scissors to her panty hose out of frustration that the line of her underwear was showing through her pants
    Uvo – a line of stunning handbags handcrafted by women in Southeast Asia and founded by a Southeast Asian immigrant to the U.S.

    My belief – women think they are not innovative because they’ve been told they aren’t for so long and have therefore put their innovation brains on ice. Ice melts. I am off to innovate something to make ice melt faster. I think they call it hot water.

  2. Great piece, thank you LeAnna!

    We compiled a list of female leaders in health here:

    And we also host a monthly dinner for female health executives in the Bay Area. Us gals must support one another!

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