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Women who choose a career in medical technology and artificial intelligence are still in the minority: only one fifth of positions in health innovation worldwide are held by women. Women often have the desire and interest to work in technology sectors, but they lack the skills. Besides, competition from men continues to limit their access to senior positions, according to a discussion on women in digital health organised by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology's Health Knowledge and Innovation Community (EIT Health) in partnership with the French Embassy and the French Institute in Latvia. At the same time, the discussion revealed that some healthcare solutions needed for the treatment of patients of both sexes have not been explored with regard to women at all.

Women have high potential and interest in health technologies, but limited opportunities

Overall, women are in the majority in healthcare, but few in the leading positions in the field of medical technologies. Only 15 % of all health and technology start-ups are led by women. Given that women are still under-represented, ways must be found to make the business and innovation environment more women-friendly.

"Women represent around half of the world's population and have unique experiences and skills that are highly valued in the medical sector. Most healthcare staff are women - nurses, doctors, pharmacists, etc. They have first-hand experience in healthcare, which enables them to identify complex problems on a daily basis that require innovative solutions. Likewise, are also often the primary caregivers in families (for children, seniors and partners). Direct caregiving experience is crucial for creating innovative solutions that meet the needs of patients and healthcare institutions," says Baiba Pētersone, Director of the RSU International Department and Head of the EIT Health Hub in Latvia.

"A large number of women who are not employed in the IT and technology sector have not even considered working there because of various stereotypes. Often, women who develop interest in these sectors lack skills. That's why they need to be given the opportunity to learn them not only at a young age, but also later on, once their careers are established. Digital skills are not only important for the development of businesses, but also for our common well-being. At the same time, in our culture women often think that technology is not their field, but the reality is the opposite and it is increasingly important to have gender diversity in the industry," continues Līna Marta Sarma, Board Member at TechHub Riga.

Women still feel pressure for gender conformity in business

Only one third of all Latvian companies (33.99 %) have at least one female official. While, only 9 % of start-ups have at least one female founder.

"Women often have to swallow the frog to compete in a business world that is still dominated by men. Sometimes I am not told technological details just because I am a woman and carry this feminine image into the business world. When I ask for a more detailed explanation, I often get the answer that I won't understand anyway. Men need to be more accepting towards women and encourage support in the tech sector, as this will bring more women into the industry," says Ilze Zaharāne, co-founder and CEO at CheeksUp.

"Diversity is needed in the management of health technology companies. The expertise of both genders is required to come up with creative solutions that fit today's complex healthcare environment. Qualities such as empathy and relationship-oriented attitude are particularly important while heading the healthcare technology companies, and these qualities are more common in female leaders,” says Baiba Pētersone.

Women tend to be left out of healthcare solutions research

Although the number of men and women is similar in Latvia and worldwide, there are cases where the health sector as a whole is more male-oriented, for example by not including patients of both genders in clinical trials. The importance of understanding the diversity of health conditions of both genders and providing healthcare based on a complete knowledge of both genders was discussed.

"Often, research on healthcare solutions does not cover both genders at all. Consequently, these solutions already have a certain gender bias and do not meet the health needs of both genders. In research conducted so far, solutions have more often been tested on men, one of the arguments being that fertility should not be affected. Women were not even included in studies conducted 30 years ago, and this tradition has created a knowledge gap. To move forward, we need to think more about women’s overall health, not just reproductive health. Paternalism manifests itself in the idea that fertility is the most important thing in a woman or in any person who has a uterus, but there are times when it is more important to stay alive,” says Aija Kažoka, editor-in-chief at Medicus Bonus.


Discussion participants

About the discussion

The event Innovative Women, Innovative Healthcare, organised by the EIT Health Hub in Latvia, featured an expert discussion on the role of women in the development of digital health technologies. The discussion participants were Aija Kažoka, Ilze Zaharāne, Līna Marta Sarma, as well as Aija Bukova-Žideļūna, Senior Researcher at the RSU Institute of Public Health, Ieva Šlēziņa, Director of the RSU Medical Education Technology Centre and Pauls Siliņš, co-creator of Rīga TechGirls.

The experience of France was outlined by Alice Freton, head of the healthcare startup programme at Paris & Co, and Nadia Skandrani, CEO at TissueAegis. Aija Bukova-Židelūna spoke about the role of women in improving public health, while Līna Marta Sarma focused on women and technology development in Latvia.

About EIT Health

EIT Health is a European public-private network in the field of healthcare created by more than 150 partners (i.e., leading European companies, universities, research and development centres, hospitals, and institutes). The mission of the network is to provide healthcare that will enable Europeans to live longer and healthier lives. EIT Health improves the skills of European healthcare professionals by investing in their professional development and promoting the international commercialisation of innovative medical products. The Latvian EIT Health Hub has been located at Rīga Stradiņš University since January 2019.