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The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) decision to not select a single female on the Health Information Technology Advisory Committee (HITAC) in December was just one of many indignities women in health IT have faced over the years while trying to rise up through the ranks in a male-dominated field.  

After GAO selected seven men for a new term within the 25-person HITAC,  HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra ended up selecting a female candidate, Medell Briggs-Malonson, MD, Chief of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the UCLA Hospital and Clinic System, for the eighth spot. In total, the committee has eight female representatives who serve for terms that last nearly three years. 

While Briggs-Malonson’s selection attempted to right this particular wrong, the initial snub brought backlash and bad vibes from health IT stakeholders and served as a reminder that the industry’s gender gap is still as wide as ever despite recent efforts to change the disparities. Deven McGraw, who applied for a spot on the HITAC, says that a field like health IT tends to bring a lot of dismissive attitudes towards women. 

“I think there’s a sense that women lack the necessary technical expertise, they’ll bring the softer sort of policy, ethics and maybe some operational experience within health care, but I think those get perceived as not technical and therefore not enough expertise to serve on a committee whose role is at least in part to recommend standards,” says McGraw, who was the co-founder and the chief regulatory officer for Ciitizen, a consumer-health technology start-up. Ciitizen was recently acquired by Invitae.  

“If you look at engineering and technical fields generally, there tend to be fewer women in those fields. It’s getting better because of the focus on STEM education and promotion of women in technical fields, but it has a long way to go. It’s not like women don’t like tech. They do. But it can be very daunting when you’re the only women in your class or on the committee,” McGraw adds.  

“Too outspoken”  

Jan Oldenburg, a veteran executive in patient engagement technology development and implementation, said that there is institutional bias in health IT against women. She says women sometimes come to health IT through less traditional paths, such as nursing, and that can create biases against their credentials. However, Oldenburg says those non-traditional paths are necessary to think outside the box. She also says some women are brought into health IT companies as changemakers, willing to call things out, and that people have a hard time accepting that.  

“This is not just about health IT, but my experience, and I think many women’s experiences, is full of situations where you are speaking what you view as the truth and it’s not accepted by the organization until a man says it, often after claiming credit for it. It’s that whole thing that what I say is not heard in the same way. You’re talked over. You’re interrupted,” says Oldenburg.  

“Personally, I have the benefit of being somewhat brash, so I just keep raising those issues and not fitting the expectation of what you should be doing in your role or how you should be behaving. I have heard that I was too outspoken, not deferential enough to people above me and I should be more diplomatic when I raise issues.”