A cultural revolution occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s that changed the nation’s employment and household-income landscape dramatically. It could be surmised that the change really began in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed and women won the right to vote. It is hard to imagine that the women’s suffrage movement did not win approval until 144 years after America won its independence; but it did.
While many women worked as part of the war effort during World War II, in defense plants and missile factories, others served in the military. Rosie the Riveter represented an increase of women in the workforce during the 1940s. When many men returned from military service after WWII and the Korean War, they settled down with their wives and the baby boom generation was born.
The baby boom generation, and their parents, witnessed a seismic change in the participation rate of women in the American workforce. It began during the war and continued into the new millennium.
By 1972, when Helen Reddy sang “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore,” the woman’s liberation movement was in full swing and would grow during the remainder of the decade. Women entered the workplace in large numbers in the following decades. Their participation rate peaked in 1999 at 60 percent and currently sits at about 47 percent.
Today, in America, there are more women in management, professional and related positions than men. Earnings disparities remain in many employment segments, but it is an issue that has gained more attention.
While many traditionally male dominated occupations have seen an evolution in recent years, the HTM field is still a largely male occupation. There are no “men only” signs outside the doors of technical schools and college electronics programs, but the interest level for these jobs proved more appealing to men in previous decades. That has changed. It’s not a monumental change, but more people are entering the field from both sexes.
AAMI points out that, according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, “almost 41 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in biomedical engineering were awarded to women in 2013-2014.” In addition, just over a third of AAMI members are female.
No Big Deal
Ironically, when we asked women in the HTM field what it was like to enter a field dominated by males, most said they didn’t give it much thought. There was no sense of apprehension, despite the fact that men have historically dominated the HTM profession.
“I have never thought about it as I was introduced into the field through electrical engineering, which is even more male dominated than HTM,” says Izabella Gieras, MS, MBA, CCE, director of Clinical Technology at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California.
“More and more women are entering the field, which is great to see and (there are) wonderful opportunities for mentorship,” she adds.
Andrea Brainard, CBET, group manager of Healthcare Technology Management for Children’s Health in Dallas Management for Children’s Health in Dallas not only ignored the statistics, but saw it as a challenge.
“Actually, that is one of the main reasons why I wanted to get into HTM –— to change the stereotype, the mold, and to prove women can be successful in a male-dominated profession,” she says.
For others, they gain extra motivation as they fight old stereotypes.
“Whenever I was considering the HTM profession, the prospect of entering a male-dominated field never really crossed my mind,” says Jordan Keebaugh, assistant chief and biomedical engineer at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Keebaugh had already become accustomed to the strong presence of men while studying for her degree in biomedical engineering. It was a part of the culture.
“I think gender bias still exists in the HTM field, which I myself have experienced firsthand, however it just pushes me to not only be a stronger individual but a more knowledgeable clinical engineer,” she says.
“Every day new challenges are thrust upon us; it is how a person deals with those challenges and learns from them that truly defines an individual,” Keebaugh says. “Gender bias is one of those challenges, but it can be overcome with confidence and knowledge.”
Keebaugh also deals with a gender-neutral first name, which has become a running joke in the her department, as staff co-workers have to explain to vendors that “Mr. Keebaugh” doesn’t work at the facility.
Inhel Rekik, MS, clinical engineer at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, also saw no problem with the fact that HTM was largely male. It just seemed like the right fit for her.
“While doing my bachelor’s degree, there were only a few women, but it wasn’t something I gave much thought to,” she says. “Growing up, I always liked science and math, so I never questioned where I should be. I knew it’s either medicine or engineering. I wasn’t interested in what we might consider women dominated careers.,”she remembers.
Rekik says that she knew that being a woman in HTM, at the time, wouldn’t be the norm. Yet, it didn’t bother her. She just wanted to achieve her full potential and be challenged and passionate about the work she was doing.
“I wanted to work for a good cause and make a difference and HTM seems to be the field I should be in,” she says.
Alyssa Merkle, who is a biomed at UMass Memorial Medical Center, responded “not at all,” to the question of having any apprehensions about entering a male-dominated profession.Merkle was featured in a TechNation Biomed Adventures feature as an HTM professional who was a member of the New England Patriots cheer squad.She is now in a masters program at the University of Connecticut(UCONN).
“I had already been through four years of college in a male-dominated major. To me, starting to work in the HTM profession really was no different. I never felt that being a woman hindered my work or worked against me,” she says. “Man, woman, we all learned the same things throughout the course of our college work and I was just excited to keep learning. It really never even crossed my mind that I was going into a field where I would most likely be the minority gender,” she adds.
She points out that regardless of gender, “your effort and dedication to the job is going to either hold you back or move you along in your career.”
Merkle works full time as an HTM professional while also taking night classes as part of UCONN’s masters in science in biomedical engineering program. The program she is in has a focus on clinical engineering. She says that the program has been more than she could ask for.
“I am at a stage in my profession where I am expected to still be fully learning. I have had great mentors between my professor at UCONN and my managers at UMass Memorial Medical Center who have inspired me to keep learning new things and seeing new things in my hospital through this experience,” Merkle says.
“At the same time, I have been given full responsibility as a Clinical Engineer at UMass Medical and don’t feel like I am just an intern for two years,” she adds. “I really have the best of both worlds right now to transition me from college to the full work force. I feel valued as a full-time employee and also nurtured to keep learning about the field.”
Carol Wyatt, MPA, CHTM, CBET, north regional director for Healthcare Technology Management with Baylor Scott & White Health, says that her experience as a woman in the HTM profession has been “outstanding.”
“I have learned and grown from every situation,” she says.
Wyatt got her HTM training in the military.
“Many years ago, I worked for a state hospital working with patients with multiple disabilities,” she says. “I wanted to help the patients have better lives. I looked around for training and found it with the U.S. Army in the form of medical equipment maintenance. I traded six years of military service for medical equipment repair training,”she adds.
Jennifer DeFrancesco, MS, CCE, CHTM, chief of Biomedical Engineering at the Indianapolis VA Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 10, agrees with her counterparts that “as a female engineer, you know what you are getting yourself into in terms of the gender equity within the field. It almost becomes something you don’t think about,” she says.
DeFrancesco points out that health care is traditionally “female friendly” and “so that pulls the HTM industry a little more in that direction in comparison to traditional tech paradigms.”
Advice to the New Generation
There are myriad courses of study to consider when college bound. For women considering the pursuit of a HTM career, any hesitation should be laid aside and put to rest in the opinions of women who have garnered experience working in the HTM field.
“I’d say do it!,” Brainard says emphatically. “We need more women in the field to change the stigma of this still male-dominated field. I don’t say that only because we need more women in the field, but also because it’s a great career choice with plenty of opportunity to grow – and at a rapid pace,” she says.
“In my opinion, women typically have very strong customer service skills, which is a huge bonus as a technician. If you keep your customers happy, you’re happier, and your boss is happier. I think of it as the ‘trickle-up effect,’ ” she adds.
Brainard says that for those who are interested in the HTM profession, but hesitant to enter, she would strongly recommend talking to someone who is out there and has done it.
“I’m sure there are other women who have had to struggle harder than some, but my belief is that, as long as your heart is in it and you enjoy the profession, view it as a new challenge each and every day to do your best and prove yourself,” she says.
Brainard knew that she wanted to pursue HTM when she first discovered the profession.
“I didn’t have a plan for after high school, but my boyfriend – now my husband – was going to college, so I looked at the course catalog and found Biomedical Technology,” she says.
“At first, I didn’t even know that I had an interest in the profession – it was one of those ‘a-ha’ moments for me, where I thought, ‘Ooh yeah, I need to do this,’ ” she adds.
As someone who had always been mechanically inclined, and who had worked on cars, it seemed interesting to her. She spoke with the program’s department chair, and he shared with her the ins and outs of the field and mentioned that there were not a lot of women in the field.
“At that moment, I literally said ‘Sign me up,’ ” she recalls.
Wyatt says that her advice would apply to both women and men considering the field.
“Nowadays, there are many paths you can take within the HTM field. Determine what your goal is, map out a plan and then execute it. If your goal changes, map out a new plan and execute the new plan,” she suggests.
“I encourage women to constantly challenge themselves during their careers in HTM, to take on different assignments and to constantly exceed expectations,” Rekik says. “Women need to keep themselves engaged in their job, and if they feel that they are getting too comfortable, it means it’s time to take on new role/assignments or ask for a promotion.”
She also points out that women, who enter HTM, don’t have to feel like they must choose between having a family and being successful. She says they can have both.
“Don’t slow down your career path because you want to have kids one day. Give it all you’ve got, so when it’s time to stop for a few weeks, you will go back to a job that’s fulfilling,” she adds.
What the Future may Hold
A career in HTM is worth pursuing regardless of gender.
“I believe the HTM field offers a great future for women and men. It’s a different HTM world from just a few years ago,” Wyatt says. “There are so many options from bench techs to project management to hybrid biomed/IT techs. It’s a great field for anyone who is dedicated to serving others and has the skills to service equipment.”
“The future is bright for all HTMers, but I see the proliferation of women in HTM as being especially noteworthy in the tech community,” DeFrancesco says. “HTM is trailblazing in gender equity in comparison to many of our technical counterparts (IT, other engineering disciplines, etcetera.). The tremendous growth of our profession over the last decade and projected growth over the next decade have challenged the ‘sacred cows’ of our industry, including the collaborative service delivery models, as well as the diversity of skills needed by HTM departments and professionals.”
DeFrancesco says that this has opened the doors up to a lot more diversity in the field – both in traditional and acquired paradigms. She points out that the bottom line is that employers will seek out the candidates who are the best fit for “their program and for working with their clinical and administrative staff, and that genuine need is driving much of the gender equity we are seeing in our field.”
While women are becoming biomeds, they are also choosing to become clinical engineers. This has been a popular option and even includes more women than men in some programs.
“Our graduates are all engineers with a BS and MS degree in engineering. They end up in the health care environment as clinical engineers or clinical engineering managers,” says Frank Painter, professor and clinical engineering program director in the biomedical engineering graduate program at the University of Connecticut.
“The attitude in the workplace has been nothing but encouraging. The majority of the health care workers in the rest of the hospital are women, so the women in clinical engineering are very well accepted by the rest of the health care community,” Painter says.
“Having an MS BME degree puts them in a very good position to work side by side with nursing, finance and administrative managers who mostly have degrees at the masters level as well. In fact, I would say that women in general have an easier time integrating into the health care team than many men do,” he adds.
There will be a new generation of biomeds who will fill the shoes of those long-term baby boomers who retire every day from HTM. The new generation will not necessarily be as largely male as in the past. The field of HTM promises to be a rewarding choice for both men and women.
“The number of women entering the field is increasing and I anticipate this to continue,” Gieras says. “More and more women are assuming leadership positions or already hold those positions and I am sure this will not end as more women continue to enter this field.”
Brainard agrees that the future looks bright for women entering HTM and that a change in the profession has already been occurring in the ranks.
“Woman are making great strides in all areas of technology. Thirteen years ago, when I started at Children’s Health, there were two female technicians; myself included. We now have six, including myself. While that doesn’t seem like a huge jump in physical numbers, it is a 300 percent increase for our organization. And I’d call that a success,” Brainard says.
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