The XX Factor: Fixing Biotech’s Gender Imbalance in the C-Suite


Xconomy San Francisco — 

Women continue to be vastly under-represented in management and executive-level positions throughout the life science industry—an inequity that came into the spotlight earlier this year when a biotech consulting firm hired female models to improve the male-female ratio at its convention after-party.

The catalyzing event sparked a much-needed debate into a serious challenge that has been my reality for decades: It is very difficult to find women executives in the biotechnology field. Since that event in January, which gained significant media attention, further reports have brought attention to the severe biotech gender gap.

It’s an issue that refuses to be swept under the rug. But besides talking about it, which is an important first step, what can companies do to actually change the current dynamic?

As a human resources executive who has worked exclusively in the life sciences for more than 16 years, I empathize with companies that struggle to bring females into the C-suite. However, I also know that finding women leaders in biotech, and in similarly off-balance industries, is far from impossible. By looking for creative ways to diversify executive and management teams, life science companies stand to gain immensely through additional management viewpoints and more diverse thinking.

Root of the Problem Runs Deep

I will share some approaches that have worked for me in finding capable women leaders to lead life science companies. But first let’s talk about why this challenge exists in the first place.

Regardless of the industry, we know that women are less likely than men to hold leadership positions. A recent report by the American Association of University Women found that 63 percent of all U.S. executives are white men. Other reports put the percentage much higher. I have observed the disparity to be far more pronounced in the life sciences than in fields such as finance, human resources, and marketing.

Due to environmental and social barriers that our country is working to overcome early in the education system, there are fewer women who gravitate towards careers in science. This leads to fewer females available to rise the ranks at biotech companies, which ultimately leads to fewer high-level women to mentor and cultivate additional female talent.

Given the resulting scarcity of women in biotech management, the “A-player” females that do exist are highly coveted by their companies. I have experienced this firsthand: The female talent pool moves quickly, and it’s not easy to recruit top women away from their current employers.

So when an executive position opens up, it is not enough for hiring managers to rely on existing networks or tried-and-true approaches to fill the role. Too often, the hiring process involves members of a predominantly white and male board of directors reaching out to their inner circles or making calls to past colleagues at other companies.

While this process may result in a quick and “reliable” hire, it won’t result in the needed diversity that will benefit the company. The status quo and same lack of diverse thinking are almost guaranteed to continue. Making a change isn’t going to be the easiest path. You have to be ready to put in the time and effort, and demand more from all involved in hiring—including yourself.

Demand More of Recruiters

For those companies who choose to work with a contingency recruiter, as many do, you must challenge the recruiter to look harder and try harder. Let the recruiter know that finding a woman is very, very important to you and hold them accountable along the way. Note: This does not mean bringing in just one woman candidate (which, as recent research has shown, will likely just result in another man being hired). It means bringing in many.

To help recruiters increase their success on this front, work with them to craft a strong elevator pitch that will resonate with female candidates, explaining why it’s so important for your company to bring in a female leader. Women want to know their voice will be welcomed and that they’ll be working in an environment that supports their success, especially if the existing C-suite is otherwise all male.

Earlier in my career, while seeking out a female executive for a pharmaceutical company, I emphasized the opportunities that existed within the company for this woman to groom other female leaders from within the company. This demonstrated to her the company’s seriousness about gender diversity and appealed to this executive’s desire to jumpstart female mentorship in the biotech industry. She took the job and continues to relish the opportunity to build the bench-strength of female talent.

Create Your Own ‘A Players’

For human resources executives, much of our attention goes to seeking talent from outside of our own company. When you’re looking for top female talent, however, it also pays to look within.

Identify women at your company who embody the qualities you want to see in your executives, and work with their managers to mold them into the leaders of tomorrow. A formal or informal mentorship program will help women more clearly see their path to the C-suite—something that can be difficult for them to envision in a male-dominated company and industry.

Women executives have a deep role to play in their own organizations by bringing women together and showing what’s needed to get those executive seats. Encourage women to become active in industry organizations and seek out leadership roles that will help them make connections and practice leadership skills.

Know When to Step Away

The biotechnology industry isn’t alone. Other sectors face similar challenges in building a diverse management team due to real or perceived shortages of non-cookie-cutter candidates in the talent pool. If you’re a leader at one of these companies, and you’re serious about cultivating a more diverse team, be prepared to think differently about hiring.

For a different result than you’ve been getting, you’ve got to change up your practices, even if that means personally stepping back and entrusting new people to manage the process. This could be someone else on your team or an outside talent advisor. Get beyond your traditional contacts and look more proactively on social networks like LinkedIn. I’ve found that almost anyone is open to a friendly cup of coffee to discuss career options.

Women provide an additional set of sensitivities and world experiences that shape everything from compensation plans and scientific strategy to marketing approach. There are also financial gains to be had: The nonprofit organization Catalyst’s analysis of financial results at Fortune 500 companies showed that those with a high representation of women board members significantly outperformed those with no female directors.

If you look out at your team and find that you’re surrounded with the same thinkers, the same gender, and the same phenotypes, then it’s time to take a critical look at hiring practices. Seek out executives who are not like you—who challenge you to think differently. Refuse membership into the status quo network. It is all of our responsibility, both men and women, to look beyond gender bias and capture the very best leadership.

It goes without saying that talented individuals shouldn’t be spared for the sake of filling a position with a woman or minority. The best person for the job should be hired, full stop. But at the same time, diversification is so much more than a “nice to have”—it must be a priority. It’s time for every life science company to commit to bringing diverse backgrounds into their boardrooms and beyond, and start working a whole lot harder to achieve that goal.