Across The Board: Ideas To Narrow Biotech’s Gender Gap

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upper ranks to prepare them for board seats outside Biogen. The report card: 13 women entered the program, called Raising the Bar. Two left Biogen before a placement, one was placed but then retired. Of the other 10, five have found board seats and five have not.

A new cohort is on its way, and the program is going national. Biogen is transferring stewardship to the volunteer group Women In Bio, according to Biogen senior director of diversity and inclusion Javier Barrientos.

In early stage biotech, where so many personnel choices are driven by the venture investors, the low female VC numbers don’t bode well. But venture firms can make a difference. When Rosana Kapeller, the CSO of Atlas Venture portfolio company Nimbus Therapeutics took the industry to task last September, Atlas partner Bruce Booth immediately issued a mea culpa. The number of women in the C-suites of Atlas companies was “shocking[ly] low,” Booth wrote on his well-read blog.

I asked Booth for an update. Via e-mail Booth said, “We’re too small for ‘policies’ and such,” but since September, three Atlas-funded companies have added four female directors, “so we are trying to do more.”

Policies, Programs, Practices: Booth’s comment raises an important question. Would small biotechs be helped or handcuffed by rules aimed at closing the gender gap? A few European countries have instituted quotas for women on boards. The Peterson study found no evidence that those quotas, such as Norway’s 40-percent threshold for state-owned businesses and public companies, “have any significant impact, positive or negative, on company performance.”

Quotas will be a tough sell in the U.S. Even a majority of people at our San Francisco dinner were uncomfortable with the idea. But a CEO of a private biotech offered that a company can send clear signals through its policies that it is woman-friendly. Maternity leave comes to mind immediately, but perhaps less obvious is paternity leave. More liberal paternity leave policies correlated with more female board seats, the Peterson study found: “It stands to reason that policies that allow child care needs to be met but do not place the burden of care explicitly on women increase the chances that women can build the business acumen and professional contacts necessary to qualify for a corporate board.”

Also important is clear guidance about behavior. What does the employee handbook say about harassment, for example?

Whether codified or not as policy in the handbook, there are programs and practices that might help foster gender equality. For example, training executives to spot and reduce unconscious bias is catching on, driven in part by Google’s use of the data-heavy methods to reverse its own dismal diversity numbers, self-disclosed two years ago. (Biogen CEO George Scangos told Liftstream that it was “the best HR training I’ve ever participated in.”) But the recruitment firm said in its 2014 report that a majority of biotechs had not yet put procedures in place to head off unconscious bias. It’s unclear how much of the industry is training employees at this point, but it’s worth noting that with all the academic research into unconscious bias, there are scant real-world results. Google’s 2015 diversity report looked practically the same as 2014.

Companies might also try to steer employees away from informal practices that feed exclusionary, male-tilted behavior. (The cliché is the Saturday golf outing.) While it would be hard to stop employees gaining the ear of key managers over drinks after work, a company could compensate by working harder to open lines of communication during work hours.

“Visibility is important for mobility,” says Sachiyo Minegishi, whose career began in the macho world of finance. She has since moved to biotech and is currently in charge of the sickle cell and oncology business at Bluebird Bio in Cambridge, MA. “The more you can articulate ideas to senior leadership,” she says, “the more you can move forward in your career.”

Starting with a sales position at Amgen 10 years ago, Minegishi has moved to smaller and smaller companies, preferring less bureaucracy. “I’ve been working my way down,” she says with a laugh. Smaller companies tend not to have formal advancement programs, but “the women I talk to in small biotechs say they don’t feel as much gender bias,” Minegishi says.

Stick Your Necks Out, Men: Several women I spoke with said women’s groups inside larger companies were not helpful. A common refrain: Men have to be involved in the diversity conversation. The United Nations’ “He For She” program came up as a template: men working with and advocating for women. In the workplace, that translates into men not just being mentors but active promoters. “A lot of companies have women-mentoring programs,” says Ramasastry. “A mentor is great, gives you the benefit of their experience, counsel, maybe some introductions, but when a promotion is put up, will she advocate for you, call [the person hiring] and talk about your skill set?”

Given the gender imbalance in the higher ranks, men have to be advocates. They have to stick their necks out for women. During our dinner conversation in San Francisco, some women around the table had reservations about advocacy programs being forced, and thought they had to be volunteer-only, without political correctness or subtle pressure on those who declined to participate. Easier said than done.

LifeSci Advisors, pilloried for the J.P. Morgan cocktail party that featured models in skimpy dresses hired to mingle with the guests, has gotten gender religion. The firm says it will launch a program with Women In Bio in about four weeks to help women crack the glass ceiling and “make the leap to the board position,” says cofounder and CEO Andrew McDonald. That follows on the firm’s commitment to help Girls Inc. New York City to teach STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) to girls from 8th to 12th grade. “They encounter roadblocks to doing science that I as a male never encountered and didn’t see until I paid attention more,” says McDonald. His firm has also pledged to place 15 women on boards by the end of 2017. A new advisory board—which includes Kate Bingham, the veteran life sciences VC who co-wrote an open letter excoriating LifeSci—is meant to keep tabs on the firm’s promises.

Saying the party episode didn’t lose LifeSci any clients, McDonald isn’t shy about using his new platform to call others out. The BIO trade group, he says, should take a stronger stance on board composition, perhaps pushing for quotas like other countries have adopted. He also points to VCs, “some of which signed the open letter. Yet when they hold the mirror up to themselves, they haven’t done anything to change.”

There are more ideas out there. As I work on more stories related to biotech’s gender gap problem, I’d love to hear yours.

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