How can we close the gender health gap and foster health equity?

The gender health gap is hindering women’s access to healthcare and treatment outcomes, resulting in misdiagnoses, lengthy diagnosis times and preventable deaths.

Alarmingly, the UK has the largest gender health gap in the G20. Progress in women’s health will be essential to closing the gap, but startups in the field face an armada of bias.

Here Jane Kennedy, Chief Business Officer at Discovery Park, explores the challenges faced by femtech startups and how they can be overcome.

Centuries of challenges

The bias around women’s health goes back centuries. In the text ‘On the Generation of Animals’, Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to a female as a mutilated male. Little wonder that the focus on women’s health has traditionally been limited to menopause and reproductive health. This stigma and lack of understanding of the differences in female physiology is limiting the growth of femtech startups, making it harder for them to gain support for their valuable products and services.

For example, it’s a surprising statistic to many people that heart disease kills twice as many women in the UK as breast cancer, as there is a common misconception that coronary heart disease is a male condition. In fact, 35,000 women in the UK are admitted to hospital each year following a heart attack – an average of 98 women per day. As a result of this misconception, women who experience hearts attacks receive poorer care than men at every stage. According to a recent British Heart Foundation (BHF) report ‘Bias and Biology’, women are more likely to be misdiagnosed and less likely to be given follow up medication to prevent another attack.

Furthermore, the underrepresentation of women in clinical trial data results in women being at greater risk of side-effects from medications. In fact, over 70% of drugs given to pregnant women have no safety information for use in pregnancy. As well as this, conditions that affect women more than men, such as migraines and endometriosis, get less funding. The lack of data collected on women’s health forces femtech companies to conduct lengthy data collection studies, which render them ineligible to receive venture capital funding.

Female founded startups struggle to access funding in general, with less than a quarter of all UK female-led companies accessing external capital in 2022/2023. There is also a lack of female investors, which could be negatively impacting investment in female-led companies. In addition, recent changes to angel investing could lower the number of women who can angel invest in a startup. These challenges for female-led start-ups translate directly to the femtech industry. Shockingly, despite over 70% of femtech companies being founded by women, male femtech founders have consistently raised more capital over the past five years.

Tackling bias

Gender disparity, especially in healthcare, has a long history, and the femtech industry needs extra support to overcome the resulting challenges. Ending bias in women’s healthcare will require better education around women’s health. Some progress has been made in this area, with teaching and assessments on women’s health being mandatory for all graduating medical students from the academic year 2024/2025. However, as a society we need to change the way we speak about women’s health, taking it more seriously and prioritising women’s needs.

Trials and datasets need to be designed with women in mind. For this to happen, structural and cultural barriers must be overcome, including: the structure of the drug development system; fears around risks to potential foetuses; and concerns around risks and burdens to institutions from resulting pregnancies. In addition, women from all ethnic backgrounds must be actively encouraged into trials and made to feel comfortable. This entails raising awareness of trials by reaching out to female-focused organisations and social media groups, as well as including more women in clinical trial staff. In addition, trial designs must consider the logistical and lifestyle needs of women, for instance, childcare and transport considerations. Funding allocated specifically for women’s health will help close the gender gap in medical research, as researchers will be drawn to the area.

Encouraging investment

More investment needs to go into female-founded femtech startups, which can be enabled by focused networking opportunities and membership schemes. Female investors are more likely than male investors to invest in female entrepreneurs. Therefore, increasing the number of female investors could well boost investment in female-founded femtech startups. A study by BNY Mellon found that if women invested at the same rate as men, there could be over $3 trillion extra capital invested globally. Three key barriers to higher levels of female participation in investing were identified in the study. Women were found to lack confidence in investing, feel they need more disposable income to invest, and believe investing in the stock market is too risky. Therefore, the investment industry needs a cultural shift to communicate in a way that fosters an inclusive environment that empowers women to invest.

Investment funds that support female founders will help accelerate progress in the femtech industry. Discovery Park’s investment fund, Discovery Park Ventures (DPV), is proud to invest in great ideas, most of which have been presented by female founders. Within the DPV portfolio is Booby Biome, a startup founded by women conducting ground-breaking breast milk research, fuelling products that deliver vital microbes to support infant gut flora and boost early immune system development. Other female-founded startups supported by DPV include VisusNano, which is developing a pipeline of exciting drug-eluting intraocular lens implants, and Vitarka Therapeutics, focused on the development of RNAi therapies and non-viral delivery platform technology.

Business support programmes also provide a great opportunity for femtech businesses to receive learning and mentorship. Discovery Park is home to a Barclays Eagle lab, which champions female led startups through its Female Founder Accelerator programme. This year, the next iteration of Discovery Park’s business support programme, Discovery Spark, which provides early-stage companies with the skills needed to catalyse their growth, will have a particular focus on femtech businesses.

Women’s health has been cast to the side for far too long and the key to closing the gender health gap lies in supporting femtech startups. By fostering an inclusive environment for female founders and investors, challenging stigma, and closing the research and data gap, we can accelerate progress to equal healthcare for all.

Join Discovery Park in supporting women’s inclusion at the Kent & Medway Women’s Health Innovation Summit on 6th March and its International Women’s Day Event on 8th March.