Biopharma Leaders Call for Gender Diversity Amid J.P. Morgan Conference

Xconomy San Francisco — 

A group of more than 100 prominent life sciences executives, investors, and business leaders have signed an open letter calling on the industry to step up efforts to increase gender diversity.

The letter was published Wednesday, on the second to last day of the annual J.P. Morgan healthcare conference in San Francisco (see full letter below). One of the events sparking the industry’s current discussion about its lack of gender diversity was an infamous cocktail party held during last year’s J.P. Morgan conference, where a New York investor relations consultancy, LifeSci Advisors, hired scantily clad women to mingle with guests. That episode was blasted in an open letter from Karen Bernstein, co-founder of BioCentury, and Kate Bingham, managing partner of SV Life Sciences, which was signed by hundreds in the life sciences and investment industries.

The life sciences gender gap has existed for a while. But the backlash over the cocktail party—along with reports in recent years that have quantified the lack of gender diversity or provided data illustrating how it hinders businesses—have turned up the volume on the discussion about solving the problem. Xconomy is among the publications that have covered the issue extensively in recent months. We also hosted seven events in cities around our network in 2016, where we convened leaders in life sciences (and tech) to talk about ways to boost diversity.

Last year’s open letter “sparked a dialogue that led to changes in some company practices, new training programs, regional gender diversity initiatives and much more,” wrote the authors of the letter released Wednesday. But that’s just the start, and they want to continue that momentum.

To help do so, their letter lays out five “guiding principles” for making gender diversity a priority in the biopharma industry. It also lists 10 best practices—framed as pledges by the letter’s authors—for increasing gender diversity in the industry. (More on those in a minute.)

The letter follows a year of discussions led by the BioPharma Executive Council and MassBio, two of the organizations that spearheaded the publication of the letter. Those two groups will now work to track the adoption and implementation of the letter’s objectives, says Steve Woit, the BioPharma Executive Council’s director. (Disclosure: Woit was Xconomy’s founding publisher.)

“We are looking forward to seeing companies actively adopt these best practices and, with MassBio, to following adoption and implementation in the industry by providing positive examples of companies who have put these proven ideas to work,” Woit says in an e-mail.

The letter’s endorsers include Sarepta Therapeutics CEO Edward Kaye; Third Rock Ventures partner Abbie Celniker; MIT professor Phil Sharp; AbbVie vice president Lisa Olson; Polaris Partners founding partner Terry McGuire; Sanofi Genzyme executive vice president David Meeker; SV Life Sciences’ Bingham, a co-author of last year’s open letter; and Mike Rice, a founding partner of LifeSci Advisors, which hosted the controversial party at J.P. Morgan.

The letter’s endorsers committed to “driving diversity and inclusion” as a top priority in life sciences, which they see as their responsibility in order to make sure the industry “thrives and is sustainable.” They note that unconscious biases are “ubiquitous and difficult to pinpoint and address,” but they call for a “conscious commitment to eradicate unconscious biases in recruitment, performance evaluation, promotion and decision making in order to improve gender diversity.”

The letter acknowledges that there are many forms of diversity that need to be nurtured, but this effort is focusing on narrowing the gender gap because “there are clear best practices that can be implemented now to increase gender diversity.”

Among them: creating formal sponsorship programs to ensure a diverse pipeline of executives; asking board members to actively encourage and support women who are good candidates for board appointments; tracking promotion of women to senior management roles; reviewing hiring processes and training hiring managers on diversity and inclusion; and setting specific diversity hiring goals, measuring progress, and reporting regularly on those efforts.

Read a PDF of the full letter below, uploaded via Scribd:

  An Open Letter to the BioPharma Community on Gender Diversity