BIO Has Big Diversity Goals. Does It Have the Means to Reach Them?
Whether from embarrassing parties or sobering surveys, the biotech gender gap problem has made plenty of headlines the past couple years. The industry’s largest trade group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), is trying to encourage its more than 1,000 member companies to do better.
Last winter, BIO posted diversity goals for the industry to hit by the year 2025, and last week, BIO sent a letter to remind members of those goals: gender parity—50 percent women—among company leadership, as well as 30 percent female board membership. Current estimates put the industry’s rank and file at 50 percent women, but women comprise only 25 percent of leadership roles and 10 percent board seats.
BIO’s letter also called for more racial diversity and LGBTQ representation, but the organization is only setting gender goals for now because of data already available, such as a 2017 report which found that women held just 11 percent of board seats among the 177 biotechs that went public from 2012 to 2015.
Just as a now-infamous cocktail party during the 2016 J.P. Morgan healthcare conference sparked urgent conversation about diversity, an offsite party during this year’s BIO convention week brought the topic again to the fore. The party, PABNAB (Party at BIO Not Associated with BIO), featured topless women dancing on stage with names of company sponsors—some of whom are BIO members—painted on their bodies. (BIO itself has nothing to do with the party, which has been taking place since the mid-2000s.)
Last week’s letter, signed by BIO’s top executives, was its first official note to members in the wake of PABNAB. Why wait four months? And beyond setting goals, what specifically is BIO doing to make the industry’s upper echelons more diverse? Xconomy reached the chair of BIO’s Workforce Development, Diversity & Inclusion committee Helen Torley to ask these questions. (Torley is also CEO of San Diego biotech Halozyme. Two years ago, she was named in a study as the only woman CEO among 44 San Diego biotechs. “When the report came out, I was absolutely gobsmacked,” she says.)
The trade organization is planning to conduct a regular diversity survey and to make an “HR toolkit” available on its website early next year, including a database of diverse candidates for board positions. But while last week’s letter threatened “membership review” if companies do something ”inconsistent” with its diversity “values,” Torley says BIO will not punish its members—the more than 1,000 are split 25 to 75 percent between public and private companies—if they can’t hit the diversity marks, Torley says. “We don’t want to be draconian.”
Xconomy talked to Torley about making a business case for diversity, how best to get companies to reach these goals, the risk of tokenism, and more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Xconomy: Do you feel confident that pledges of diversity will go beyond political correctness or lip service?
Helen Torley: Definitely. What we’ve managed to change in the last two years is that diversity’s not all about political correctness of gender and race. It’s needed to make drug development successful: a diversity of gender, race, background, skill sets, creating inclusive cultures where the best ideas win in a much broader sense. That concept is being embraced. People better understand the business impact.
All the studies show a correlation [between diversity and business success], and investor groups like CALPERS and Blackrock and Wellington insist on sending letters to companies to say you must get diversity on your board and in your C-suite.
X: Is it dispiriting that you have to make the business case to convince certain people before they take diversity to heart?
HT: As a mother of daughters, I’m surprised we still face this in today’s world. But many people, frankly, haven’t been in organizations that have been diverse. Everybody just hiring everybody like themselves is such a natural comfort zone, so the idea of bringing in different people, some people haven’t seen it before. You have to bring the facts. We’re a data-driven industry.
X: If BIO’s 2025 goals have been posted on its website since December, why did you send the letter last week?
HT: To continue to highlight the importance of diversity, but also to take a stand with regard to how BIO would expect its members to behave, which in part was coming after PABNAB. After PABNAB there were quotes from [BIO chair] John [Maraganore] and [BIO president and CEO] Jim [Greenwood] on the topic, but we hadn’t had an official communication being clear that those behaviors don’t fit.
X: Nothing specific happened to prompt a reminder?
HT: There was no specific stimulus. It was a nice opportunity to remind all our members. It takes many times for people to hear and take action on a message. We’re hopeful that by the first quarter of next year, we’re going to have several tools available that CEOs can use, especially in smaller companies that may not have the resources or staff that larger companies have.
X: What do you mean by “tools”?
HT: I’ll start with metrics. We do not have good metrics on race or LGBTQ. You’ll see in the first quarter a survey to get better metrics across multiple dimensions of diversity so we can set goals outside of gender. Gender is a leading indicator, but all these other constituencies deserve to see us track [their interests] with equal energy. We’ll repeat the survey annually or biannually.
We’ll also develop an HR toolkit that will be available on the BIO website for companies that want best practices in succession planning: How to do sponsorship programs, how to do mentorship programs. How do I make sure I’m advancing a diverse set of candidates and unconscious bias isn’t creeping into it. That’s still in development.
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