As the FDA is fast-tracking promising treatments, vaccines and tests for the coronavirus, a ground-breaking, first-of-its kind study is telling us that women serving on a medical company’s board could literally save your life.

According to the study, called “The Influence of Female Directors on Product Recall Decisions,” highly-defective medical products and treatments are recalled 28 days faster – 35% faster – when more than one woman is on the board of directors, compared to all-male boards.

“For these types of recalls, (that) is truly a matter of life or death,” according to the study’s executive summary.  It continued, “It’s only when there are at least two female directors on the board that the timeliness of severe product recalls increases; when there are three female directors, the recall decision moves along even faster.” These can be prescription drugs “or life-sustaining medical devices.”

A group of top researchers from four universities reviewed medical product recalls of 4,271 products – including pharmaceuticals, devices such as stents, and biologics – from 92 public companies between 2002 and 2013 for this study.

The first to study the relationship between female board members and medical product recalls, it also found that there are other medical product defects we may never know about unless there are female directors. It says that lower severity, non-life-threatening product defects that can be hidden from regulators, are recalled 120% more often when women are on the board.

Our firms’ informal review of 20 COVID-19 treatments and vaccines in development found that 40%, or eight,  had either no women or only one woman on their board. Remdesivir, a coronavirus treatment recently fast-tracked by the FDA for example, is being developed by Gilead, which has four women directors on their board of nine.

What difference do women make in recalls?

When I interviewed one of the co-authors, Corinne Post, Ph.D., from Lehigh University, for my podcast, she told me three reasons that women on these medical company boards may make a difference in recalls. These reasons, she said, are due to the arduous path the (few) women who make it to the senior-executive leadership in this field have to take.

“First of all, women who reach the top levels, the executive levels, in their firms, and that’s typically where firms will draw board membership from ….know that whatever they do is highly scrutinized.

They know that any error probably leads to irrecoverable career outcomes, that there’s a steep fall from grace. And so, these women have learned, and have been able to successfully navigate, all the potential traps for failure.”

“That mentality,” Post said, “that way of thinking, would also make them follow very closely FDA rules (and)… there are very specific rules for how to deal with these recalls.”

A second reason Post gave is: “Women have been socialized, and tend to still to this day, to perform more of the caregiving roles, care more for children, more than men do still, and also care more for elders or for people who are sick in their families. And so, they may be more aware or attuned to the implications of products, medical products that might be defective.”

Thirdly, Post explained that these women who make it to the top tend to have industry experience: “When they’re pulled on boards, they’re often scientists, so they have a scientific background, and sometimes also hospital, or health network senior executives, so they have that health angle that they bring to the picture.”

Post said women make up only 19% of healthcare company boards, compared to the U.S. average of 25% or 26%.  I have found that women make up about 85% of the healthcare workforce and have been at least 44% of medical school graduates since 2002, so it seems women are untapped board talent.

The study’s other co-authors are: Katie Wowack, Ph.D. of the University of Notre Dame, George Ball, Ph.D. of Indiana University, and Dave Ketchen, Ph.D. of Auburn University.

What difference does a board of directors make?

Recalls are management decisions, not board-level decisions, but, “boards set the tone for how executives behave,” Post explained. Women board members, because they tend to focus more on patient safety, compliance and making careful decisions, also tend to be much better prepared for board meetings. As a result, women are “asking much more pointed questions…(including) about the measures around quality control proceses,” according to Post.

Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, said on my podcast that women come so much better prepared to board meetings that it raises their board’s effectiveness overall, because their fellow male members then prepare more too.

Women on boards also tend to look at the culture of the firm, which as we know from the vibrant history of whistleblowers is critical. Post told me the stories of two companies that illustrate the pattern in lower severity recalls.

One company with multiple women on their board had a policy of recalling a product if they cannot disprove their culpability within 3 days. Another company with no women on its board, had the opposite policy: if they cannot prove they are responsible for the defect in 3 days, they leave the product on the market.

Women are not “pixie dust”

Then there’s hydroxychloroquine, the potential dangers of which the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) issued a warning about in an editorial.  The company developing this highly controversial COVID-19 treatment, Novartis, has four women on their board of 14 members.

It includes at least two formidable women who one would think other members would listen to: one woman who is the former CEO of both a top consumer products company and of a public relations and marketing company; and another woman who is a medical doctor and professor at a top university with a Ph.D.  We will likely never know if these women raised red flashing lights on hydroxychloroquine or not.

It’s a reminder, as Post told me, that, “Putting women on to a board, or on an executive team, or into a team anywhere, is really not pixie dust, it’s not like a magic formula you throw in.” She said some boards diversify their members under pressure, so “It’s also really key that that particular group integrates, listens to, incorporates, hears what women have to bring to the table.”

So, the key takeaways from this study I see are:

(a) As a consumer: Ask about recalls and the board of directors of the company that developed the new experimental treatment or vaccine you are considering before you take it, for your own safety;

(b) As a potential employee or executive: If you are exploring working at one of these companies, ask the same questions, so you have a better sense of the company culture;

(c) As an investor: Ask the same questions to protect your investment (these companies perform better in a crisis too); and

(d) As a current company leader: Put more women on your board to have a better managed company that produces higher-quality products, and make sure those women are listened to and their points are taken seriously.

Keep in mind that, as Dr. Post said, “putting women on the board is not pixie dust,” or any guarantee.