An Insider’s Guide to Bridging the Biotech Gender Gap


Xconomy San Diego — 

As an executive recruiter focused solely on life sciences, I’m among the first to acknowledge the industry’s gender gap. Of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies around the world, only one has a woman at the helm—and GSK named Emma Natasha Walmsley as CEO less than five months ago.

Among biotech executive leadership teams, women make up a scant 20.9 percent for small and medium-sized enterprises (between 10-1,000 employees), which drops to 13.9 percent for big biotechs (more than 1,000 employees), according to the life sciences search firm Liftstream.  

This state of affairs isn’t good for business. Fortune 500 companies with a high representation of female board members significantly outperform those without, according to a report from Catalyst, and women CEOs have been shown to deliver higher financial gains than their male counterparts.

But there’s reason to believe change is afoot. In fact, I’m going to say something about the life science industry that might come as a surprise, based on the very real numbers presented: It’s one of the best sectors around for women to land top executive roles.

I have access to the upper echelons in the world of biotech hiring, and one thing I consistently hear from clients today is a desire for diversity in top roles. Companies might have previously wanted this to some degree, but perhaps did not put much energy into vocalizing and following through. But now the follow-through is there. Diverse hires are happening. The biggest challenge these days for biotech companies is finding—and keeping—the talent. There’s been no better time for women in biotech to be taking steps towards executive leadership.

How to Break Out of Middle Management

Based on my experience placing dozens of women into C-level roles over the last two decades, here’s my advice for getting yourself prepped for the positions you want.

1.     Identify your desired executive role. What are the technical skills required of that job? If you don’t have them, acquire them. Identify and address key gaps in your experience, and customize your resume for the role you want.

2.     Be seen and heard in the community. Interview mentors, board members, and executive search firms to learn all you can about the position you want. Let others know of your interest, and ask mentors specifically about potential gaps between your current skill set and requirements for this role. For example, I’ve learned that many would-be CEO candidates don’t realize the role typically requires experience managing R&D. With this kind of insight from a mentor or recruiter, you can act to collect this experience. Many networking groups can help you forge the connections you need. Local chapters of organizations such as Women in Bio, Athena International, and the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA), are good places to start, as are regional biotech trade associations.

3.     Apply, even if you don’t meet all the qualifications. This is one of the biggest differences I see between men and women at the executive level. Women typically pursue only the jobs for which they feel they’re 100-percent qualified, even if they have 80 percent of the needed skills. But I’ve seen men pursue jobs with confidence even if they’re only 50-percent qualified. I’ve spent a lot of time convincing qualified women to persist and apply, and a lot of time telling men they need more experience first.

A Few Words for Hiring Decision-Makers

Now, for those of you—men and women—who want to close the diversity gap at your company, here’s some free advice: Qualified, diverse candidates are in high demand and move upward (and potentially away) quickly. It’s essential for you to expand your talent pool through mentoring. (And yes, men can and should mentor women.) If your company doesn’t have a mentoring program, create one. For inspiration, check CSweetner, a great program created by the Bay Area biotech investor and consultant Lisa Suennen.

Networking also plays an important role. It’s natural to interact with those who look like you do; we all rely on the networks we created to climb our own ladders. But finding the leaders who are really the best for our companies means stretching beyond your own comfort zone.

When seeking out diverse candidates, don’t pretend that unconscious bias doesn’t exist. It does. Unconscious bias can influence the hiring process to favor men in various ways, from the language used in job postings to the way you screen resumes. Questions asked during the interview also may be biased: a recent study analyzing questions potential investors asked entrepreneurs showed men were questioned about what they will achieve, while women were questioned about results they have shown. This was unintentional, of course, but these investors would also say they are “gender blind.” Educate yourself and your team to defeat unconscious gender bias.

Finally, once you do hire women into key roles, don’t lose them to a competitor. Provide career progression through promotions and profile-boosting projects. That’s the No. 1 reason good people leave a company, and it’s entirely avoidable.

An Extraordinary Time for Biotech

It’s easy to feel frustrated that change hasn’t happened yet on the scale we’d like, even with strong desire from leadership to build diverse teams. But I believe we’ll make progress from here by working to identify and overcome the barriers to our progress. Never before has real change been so within reach. The power is in our hands. As job candidates, and the people who hire them, it’s up to us to make it happen.

Robin Toft is the president and CEO of Toft Group Executive Search. Over the course of her career in executive search, Ms. Toft has placed hundreds of executives, from director through C-level positions in biotech, pharmaceutical, diagnostic, medical device, and digital health companies. Follow @

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