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Improving Odds for Women in Tech? Take Notes from Biotech

Opinion

Xconomy Boston — 

At our entrepreneurial support organization, the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED), we often joke about adhering to the proper dress and catering code for our networking events: jeans and beer for tech; suits, wine and cocktails for life sciences.

But there is more to these superficial differences between the two networks serving 1,200 entrepreneurial companies in the Research Triangle Park region of North Carolina. Simply put, there are many, many more women attending the life science events. It’s been that way for years.

And that got me thinking. For all the talk about improving diversity and inclusion in tech, the real-life example of success in biotech, especially for women entrepreneurs, offers some clues on what it may take to change the trajectory in IT. Here’s my list of key observations that impact inclusion, based on experience and a number of conversations I’ve had with female leaders in the life science industry:

Culture. I’m not talking about the ability to take risks—that’s true for startups, no matter if it’s the latest app company or a novel medical device. I think this is more about the nature of science, which requires a high degree of collaboration, and a tradition of seeking advice from peers to validate results. “I have always thought gender was a neutral matter—it never helped, and hopefully, never hurt,” said a female biotech company president who asked not to be named. “My focus has been on finding great people with relevant interests,” she said. By necessity, biotech companies have to build teams with diverse experiences and perspectives, work habits developed early in research labs and academia. IT companies can benefit by thinking more about team-building, and less about reinforcing a culture of “star” performers. Women, in particular, are put off by workplaces that pit co-workers against each other for recognition and career advancement. A little collaboration can go a long way.

Pipeline. When I was in high school many years ago, there weren’t many girls enrolled in AP biology classes. That’s changed in a single generation. The US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reports that girls now equal or exceed the number of boys enrolled in high school biology and chemistry classes, and, as of 2010, are awarded more than half of all PhDs nationwide. While women are still not starting biotech firms at equal rates as men, they are closing the gap as they become better prepared. College programs have been effective in attracting women into life sciences, but participation of women in other STEM programs—physics, engineering, and computer science— is at about only 25 percent. Is there a way to use the same pathway that led to such dramatic increases in participation in the natural sciences to boost enrollment in technology-related fields? The lack of qualified women in the tech job market speaks to the importance of investment in these types of education initiatives to keep women interested in pursuing a career in what remains a stubbornly non-traditional academic field.

Training. Careers inside large pharma, often a precursor to a biotech startup, offer women scientists the opportunity to gain experience in commercialization, finance, and clinical trials. Christy Shaffer, PhD, now a general partner at Hatteras Venture Partners, became CEO of Inspire Pharmaceuticals after a diverse career at the former Burroughs Wellcome. “As an international project leader, I was able to learn a broad skill set that was instrumental,” she said. “I ultimately became CEO at Inspire and was convinced to do so by all the male board members.”

Shaffer says she has benefited from 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).