As in many sectors, healthcare has a dearth of women leaders.
By Ariel Schwartz (Senior Editor, FastCompany’s Co.Exist)

Just 4% of healthcare CEOs are women even though they make up 73% of medical and health services managers.

And according to health technology startup accelerator Rock Health, just three VC-backed digital health tech startups that raised at least $2 million in 2012 had female CEOs. These lopsided ratios may be about to change with a little help from Rock Health’s burgeoning XX in Health movement.

It all started with a series of dinners for female leaders in healthcare, organized by the San Francisco-based accelerator. These became so popular that Rock Health held a larger 120-person event last May, dubbed the XX Retreat, for women in healthcare,
including Linda Avey, the co-founder of 23andme and Curious; Charmaine Pattinson, the Director of the Clinton Health Access Initiative; and Molly Coye, Chief Innovation Officer at UCLA.

Clare Wylie, Rock Health’s event director, provided me with some comments from attendees, who called the event “transformational”, said it gave them “a feeling of empowerment”, and that it provided “an unbelievable atmosphere.”

This isn’t hyperbole. I attended the day-long retreat, which featured short talks from women leaders and intimate roundtable discussions. The excitement in the air was palpable; by the end, I felt that the event almost like a collective sigh of relief for a group of women who rarely – if ever – got to spend so much time with other like-minded women in the field.

Danielle Cass, an innovation evangelist at Kaiser Permanente, also attended the event and participated in a mini-documentary about it afterwards (see below).

“On one hand, it was an incredible networking experience, connecting with people I already knew. I was also able to make new connections and hear about other women doing incredible things,” she says. “As a mentor, I was able to connect and stay in touch with several women younger than me that are wanting to learn from me. Connecting with people not as far along the path as I am made me feel like I have something to share.”

The XX in Health movement is growing quickly. There have now been 19 events in four cities across the U.S, according to Wylie. The active XX in Health LinkedIn group has 353 members. These are numbers that will only increase; Cass told me that she’s hoping to organize a happy hour XX in Health event in Washington, DC. She’s surely not the only one making plans.

During this past summer’s XX in Health week, 30 women (including Women 2.0’s Angie Chang) wrote pieces about their experiences in the field. In one piece, TEDMED Chief Marketing Officer Shirley Bergin implored women leaders to become healthcare mentors. In another, Dr. Lily Peng, a Product Manager at Doximity, discussed the female influence in healthcare.

Cass, for her part, believes that this movement wouldn’t have been as successful if it launched a decade ago. “This is a thing whose time has come. We’re nearly at 50% of women graduating from medical school. Look at the number of women who decided they don’t want to wait to break the glass ceiling at companies and want to start our own,” explains Cass, who believes she’s lucky to be among thousands of women leaders at Kaiser.

“Women have historically been decision-makers in healthcare. It’s commingling to become a perfect storm. Credit to Rock Health that they’ve predicted this, are tapping into this, and driving it forward.”

The movement has grown so large that Rock Health is looking for someone to take care of XX in Health full-time. Now the accelerator has to face a new challenge: preserving the intimacy of the XX in Health movement while also expanding it to include the ever-widening group of women leaders in healthcare. The next retreat will be in January in San Francisco.

Women 2.0 readers: Who are the health tech entrepreneurs out there? Let us know who you are and what you’re working on in the comments.

About the guest blogger: Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Fast Company’s Co.Exist, where she covers transportation, healthcare, education, urbanization, green technology, and more. She has contributed to a number of publications, including SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, and GOOD Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @arielhs.