Where are the women in health IT?

Where are the women in health IT?

Members of the HIMSS Europe Women in Health IT Community discuss their efforts to encourage more women into digital health careers and the health-related benefits of gender equality in the workforce.

The HIMSS Europe Women in Health IT Community was established following the success of the US initiative to address the gender gap within the industry, improve awareness of gender-related issues, and provide professional resources and greater recognition to women leaders making significant contributions to the field.

The community reflects the fact that women are largely over-represented in the wider health and social care system but under-represented at the executive and management level.

Indeed, women account for roughly 70% of the global health workforce but, according to the ‘2018 Global Health 50/50 Report’, just 25% of the world’s top global health organisations have achieved gender parity at the level of senior management, and only 31% are headed by women.

Achieving a gender-diverse workforce is essential if health systems are to effectively respond to the full range of women’s health requirements. According to WHO/Europe, putting women into leadership roles in public health can help to ensure that women’s needs across the life course are integrated into health policies, highlight the importance of health-in-all-policies approaches, and encourage intersectoral action. It can enhance patient experiences, improve the design of medicines and therapies, and promote equality and better global health for all by challenging gender stereotypes, norms, and roles.

Here, Health Europa speaks to Angela Velkova, Line Linstad, and Jaana Sinipuro – three members of the HIMSS Europe Women in Health IT Community – to find out more about the important contribution women can make to the digital transformation of health and care and how best to increase their participation in the health IT sector.

How can we make health IT women-friendly?

For Linstad, senior advisor at the Norwegian Centre for E-health Research, boosting the number of women in the field is less a question of promoting women in health IT than it is promoting health IT to women.

In her native Norway, she notes that the majority of medical students are women, but they learn very little about IT while at school, something which encourages a feeling that a career in IT is ill-suited to them.

She explains: “To increase the number of female actors in health IT, we need to explain to girls at an early age that technology is not very hard and it’s not just for men or engineers or physicists – it’s something that is useful for every subject and in every sector that you would like to work in. We need to start looking at the different schools, not just medical and nursing schools but high schools, as well, in order to begin to recruit female students into ICT studies at an early age.”

Sinipuro, who heads up Isaacus – the Digital Health HUB at Sitra, would similarly like to see health IT ‘rebranded’ for women. She notes that many women are put off from careers in IT because they don’t feel knowledgeable enough about technology but points out: “You can learn a lot while you are doing, and you can grow in your career – you don’t need to know it all before you start.

“If you have a curious mind and are willing to challenge yourself, you can learn as you go. I think that’s something women could learn from men – they don’t think that they need to be fully qualified right away in order to progress.”

Linstad suggests developing a ‘translation profession’ specialising in the application of IT to healthcare, and vice versa, in order to encourage more female medical students to embrace jobs in technology. The role is inspired in part by her own career and one which she says could be filled and led by women.

“I have been a manager for 12 years and have worked with several IT professors and researchers. I don’t necessarily understand the particularities of their work, but I can grasp the overall concept, and because I’m a political scientist I can apply it at the macro- and policy levels. The same could be encouraged among girls and women who study medicine: they don’t need to have a complete understanding of IT to be able to apply it to their field.”

The importance of female role models

Central to any effort to change women’s and girl’s perception of health IT will be role models. That’s why in 2017 HIMSS introduced the Most Influential Women in Health IT awards, an annual leadership prize awarded to women who are not only working to empower women and girls in health and IT but are also driving significant process in interoperability, access to healthcare, compassionate care and assessment, and research and technology as a whole.

The awards come as the results of an ongoing European survey reveal that only one in 15
women thinks there is enough recognition of the contribution women executives make in
the industry.1

2018 Most Influential Women in Health IT

Ann O’Brien

Ann O’Brien served as the national senior director of clinical informatics at US healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente between May 2009 and December 2017. In addition to heading the Inter-Regional Nursing Governance Group, which sets the strategy for the nursing content in KP HealthConnect – one of the largest private electronic health systems in the world – O’Brien collaborated with the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a nursing information model process for interoperability. The evidence-based model helps to improve care co-ordination and quality outcomes by enabling patient data to be captured, re-used, and shared between organisations and across electronic health records (EHRs).

Judy Murphy

Judy Murphy is the chief nursing officer at IBM Global Healthcare and a member of the IBM Industry Academy. She plays a leading role in the development of health IT solutions to improve health and healthcare, reduce costs, and ease clinical workloads, and is a passionate advocate of using analytics and technology to facilitate patient-centric care.

Jessica Kahn

Jessica Kahn is a senior expert at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. During her time at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Kahn oversaw approximately $5bn (~€4bn) in annual federal spending for state Medicaid IT and data projects and was responsible for the Medicaid EHR Incentive Program, which saw more than 202,000 providers receive over $12bn in incentive payments to adopt, implement, upgrade, and meaningfully use federally certified EHR systems. Kahn also successfully championed a groundbreaking agreement between the CMS and the Social Security Administration to permit the reuse of data in states’ Medicaid systems for human services eligibility to streamline integrated services.

Vice-Admiral Raquel C Bono

In her role as director of the Defense Health Agency (DHA), Vice-Admiral Raquel C Bono oversees a joint, integrated combat support agency which supports the army, navy and air force medical services to provide a medically ready force and ready medical force to combatant commands in both peacetime and wartime. Vice-Admiral Bono has led a number of significant strategic health IT initiatives for the Military Health System, efforts which, among other things, have helped to create a comprehensive health IT infrastructure that provides a safe, secure, and reliable backbone for both military and private sector healthcare delivery around the world.

For Linstad, showcasing examples of successful women in the field is so important because it makes other women believe that they can achieve similar success, but for Velkova, senior communities manager at HIMSS Europe, the awards are about more than just recognising outstanding women in the field.

She explains: “With every event and initiative that we do, we try to come back to storytelling. All our role models have a lot of stories to tell about how they’re advancing in their career, and normally they’re of a generation when it was not as simple as it is today to be acknowledged.

“It’s important that the women we’re engaging with aren’t only networking with and learning from one another but are passing that knowledge on to other groups of women, as well, to medical students and to women in start-ups, and empowering them. We don’t just want to force women’s achievements into the spotlight; we want to replicate them at the local level.”

“We have been trying to build those kinds of local networks in Finland,” Sinipuro adds, “but they are not so active.”

Attempts to do the same in Norway have similarly failed, says Linstad, but she is hopeful that that will change as momentum builds for gender equality across the globe.

Feminism in health IT

The international #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have shone a new light on sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse in the workplace and sparked a wider conversation around gender equality in all aspects of society. Velkova is optimistic that their influence is now being felt in the health IT sector, as well – albeit to a lesser extent.

“We’re seeing big corporations launch women in technology initiatives and campaigns. While there are fewer of these for women in health IT, I’m glad that HIMSS was one of the pioneers in this space with its global women in health IT movement.”

Velkova adds that HIMSS’s annual conference (HIMSS18) this year overlapped with International Women’s Day on 8 March, and thus took women in health IT as one of its key themes. In addition to hosting the Most Influential Women in Health IT awards, HIMMS18 featured a Women in Healthcare IT Roundtable – which provided a valuable platform for participants to discuss ways to improve the status of women in the healthcare IT workforce, mentoring, and the gender pay gap – as well as an opening keynote from Alphabet technical advisor and former executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who paid tribute to pioneering physician Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the USA, by putting forward his vision of a virtual medical assistant that he named ‘Dr Liz’.

Velkova tells Health Europa: “The fact that women in health IT were really the focus of what is considered to be the world’s largest and most influential digital health event hopefully means that we are catching up to the progress happening in other female campaigns.

“This is perhaps more the case with the US community, but our aim with the European community is to replicate that success and engage as many women as possible. It’s easier to work on a global movement in the USA because it is a different market: it is less fragmented, it is more homogeneous, and everyone speaks the same language. So the excitement and level of involvement of women in the USA is really exciting, and I’m pleased to say that we’re getting there in Europe.”

The gender pay gap

Progress is, however, moving less quickly when it comes to eliminating the gender pay gap. In 2016, HIMSS published the results of its ten-year Longitudinal Gender Compensation Assessment, based primarily on US data, which found that women health IT workers have consistently been paid less than their male counterparts over the last decade. A 2018 survey of the USA found that women in health IT earn on average 18% less than their male peers for comparable work and job positions. The pay gap keeps widening as women progess to the executive levels or come from minority groups.

“HIMSS hopes that by publishing these statistics we can raise awareness and motivate the women and men in the health IT community in Europe to demand better and advocate for equal compensation,” Velkova says. “Hopefully, we will be able to report better results this year.”

“We should not stop working for equal pay between women and men in health IT,” adds Linstad. “Even if the gap starts to close, the moment we start to relax it will probably widen again. So, we must keep pushing for change. However, it can be very difficult to make progress because even in a country like Norway, where men and women are very equal, there is a still a difference in their pay.”

Women in leadership

Research suggests that more diverse leadership teams result in less pay disparity. Are health IT organisations doing enough to eliminate gender bias in recruitment and improve female representation in leadership positions?

Velkova would like to see changes implemented at the management level to ensure that more women feel able to apply – and are hired – for the top jobs.

“Every organisation should promote a culture that incentivises women to work on the development of their professional and leadership skills, and also makes it clear that management- and senior-level positions are not only for men, that everyone has equal access and an equal right to advance to those roles when the time is right. That would really help to stimulate the ambition of women and encourage them to aim high,” she says.
In this respect, HIMSS Europe is leading by example – not only in its evident commitment to raising the profile of women in health IT but also in the make-up of its members, many of whom are women in senior positions in the public and private sector, and in its own workforce, which Velkova notes is largely female.

It will now be up to other actors in the health IT space to follow in HIMSS’s footsteps – only then will the true impact of digital health technology be realised and the full potential of women unlocked for the benefit of global health.


  1. The full results of the survey will be announced during HIMSS Europe 18 and will reveal how women respond to these attitudes and the role HIMSS will play in raising awareness and empowering for equal rights and equal pay in health IT in the coming period.

HIMSS Europe

HIMSS Europe acts as a trusted coach, advisor, and thought leader in health IT, supporting those in the industry to shape, inform, and deliver the transformation of health and care through information and technology.

Boasting an unparalleled portfolio of independent media news, unique insights into market trends, a host of industry events at both regional and pan-European levels, and full access to the resources of parent company HIMSS, the largest health IT membership organisation in the world, HIMSS Europe is a one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about health IT.

Angela Velkova
Line Linstad
Jaana Sinipuro
HIMSS Europe Women in Health
IT Community

This article appears in issue 5 of Health Europa Quarterly, which is now available to read here.

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