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Improving Odds for Women in Tech? Take Notes from Biotech

Opinion

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male and female mentors throughout her career, and now plays the same role for young entrepreneurs. In the tech world, the timetable for building careers is more compressed, with the need to scale a company quickly, rather than growing steadily over time. Successful men and women tech leaders will need to identify young talent early, and provide new assignments and connections through their networks to accelerate the learning curve for those coming along behind them.

Flexibility. This may have as much to do with the longer timeline for product development in life science companies, compared to tech, but the industry never had the reputation for punishing hours and the need for face time. Biotech startups work hand-in-hand with universities and the service industry, including clinical research organizations, many headed by women. The family-friendly policies of these institutions, no doubt, carried over into biotech and offered an attractive option for highly skilled workers juggling work and life priorities. Tech companies that embrace and promote flexibility, such as working remotely, may be among the first to successfully diversify and attract more women to IT careers. And it will have to start at the top. The new emphasis on family leave embraced by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others is a promising sign that attitudes may be shifting, especially as younger workers demand more of a personal life.

Funding. It’s not great for women biotech founders, but at least there are proportionately more women venture partners in life sciences than tech looking at deals. Still, there’s lots of room for improvement, according to Shaffer: “I’m currently on five corporate boards and serve or have served as the board chair of three of them. In all cases, I am the only woman on the board,” she says. Karen LeVert, who commercializes early stage life science technologies through her firm Southeast TechInventures, agrees. “In the startup scene, I think the numbers are measly for both tech and bio. This is troublesome because it shows that women may have a harder time getting funded,” LeVert says.

This may be the most difficult, long-term opportunity to impact diversity. Venture funds tend to hire partners who have had success in the industry. It will first take more successful women tech entrepreneurs who are ready to move into these positions. However, the story is different for angel investors, where women are wielding more influence. The Angel Capital Association reports that women now represent 26 percent of this type of investor, up from 8 percent in 2006. The ACA also reports that women-led startups are 25 percent more capital efficient than male-led companies, a statistic that, if it holds up, will begin to affect the decision-making of individual investors.

There are certainly more factors at play for both sectors, but these points could be a good starting point for tech leaders—moving the issue of inclusion past the conversation stage and into action. Leaders from around the world, including senior female executives from Pfizer and Merck, and accomplished entrepreneurs like Prabhavathi Fernandes, CEO of Cempra, will be part of the program agenda sharing diverse perspectives at CED’s Life Science Conference, March 1-2, 2016, at the Raleigh, NC Convention Center. I invite you to join us (and we promise to be properly dressed).

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