Women have come a long way in the biotech business the past couple decades, no doubt. But if you have any illusions that the industry is nearing gender balance in 2011, then you haven’t seen what I witnessed a few days ago in a hotel lobby in Seattle.
The gender balance issue jumped out at me at the kickoff meeting for the local chapter of Women in Bio, a networking group for female biotech pros. There were about 200 women of all ages there, plus me, and maybe five other men. Unlike many biotech events where the mood often reflects some grim commentary about the economy or the FDA, this room was brimming with enthusiasm, can-do spirit, and camaraderie. Women were smiling and just having a plain old good time working the room, catching up with old friends, and making new ones.
This wasn’t some party to celebrate a big milestone like the FDA approval of some company’s new drug. The rallying principle was about how women of science and business need to build their professional networks, mentor younger women, offer scholarships, and help build up the self-confidence it takes to get ahead in management, ask for a raise, or start a company.
I wondered if I really belonged there. Even though I was a pretty visible member of the minority, everyone made me feel welcome.
I had to ask myself—where was all this pent-up enthusiasm coming from? Now, I don’t have my head in the sand; I’m well aware that women still face obstacles in society that keep many from rising to the top. Only 64 percent of biotech boards had at least one female director, compared to 85 percent of boards for S&P 500 companies, according to a 2005 survey by recruiting firm Spencer Stuart. Women held just 12 percent of senior executive positions in the world’s top drug companies, according to a 2007 report in Pharmaceutical Executive. Biotech’s top companies fared only a little better in that analysis, with women in 22 percent of the senior management jobs.
None of that surprises me, but at least anecdotally, I find myself interviewing stellar women in life sciences on a weekly basis. When I go to non-gender focused industry events, it seems like I see plenty of women there already. But this Women in Bio event drew a whole different crowd, of women from different disciplines, ages, and ethnicities that you don’t see out in force at other industry conferences.
So why the need for an all-female biotech networking group? Why was there such a powerful outpouring of enthusiasm? Generalizations, I know, are dangerous in gender issues, but I had to ask.
“Women want to feel connected with each other. They want to have a platform where they can connect and collaborate in order to support each other,” says Adriana Alejandro, a Seattle-based scientific consultant. She adds that women she’s met are mostly interested in finding a map to help navigate the terrain. “It’s not about what’s holding us back, but it’s about how to move forward. There is significant progress that has been made, but we’re still not there yet,” Alejandro says. Having heard about the success of the Seattle event, women in other West Coast biotech hubs are already showing interest in forming their own chapters, she adds.
Not every woman who was there explained the appeal of Women in Bio in the same way. Some who were there told me they feel more comfortable talking about things like child care issues, elder care issues, when there aren’t any men around. One of the perennial themes is balancing family and work, which will always be an issue as long as women shoulder more of the burden for family matters.
Jacque Boyd, a communications consultant in Seattle who attended the event, said the event felt more to her like a social gathering in which she was able to catch up with old friends. It wasn’t so much about breaking through any glass ceilings, or advancing a political idea. Then again, she adds, she knows that she could easily pick up the phone and talk business with any of these women next week or next month. “There is still a glass ceiling, but women just like to connect. It was about camaraderie,” Boyd said. Cheryl Lubbert, the president of HPG, a 45-person health communications firm in Seattle, agreed that for her it was all about the camaraderie, the connections, and not really gender issues. “When you connect people like this, men and women alike, you get generation of new ideas,” Lubbert says.
I couldn’t agree more that networking is essential to stimulating the innovation community. It’s one of the founding ideas at Xconomy.
But if you really want to get the most out of any region’s talent pool, you’d think that tapping into the collective smarts and drive of 50 percent of the population would be kind of important. Yet it’s still rare for women to get to the top, and be judged solely on their own merits.
Just a couple days after I attended the Seattle networking event, I flew to San Francisco, where I interviewed Susan Desmond-Hellmann. She’s the chancellor of UC San Francisco, one of the nation’s top biomedical research centers. She’s a biotech industry legend from her experience as president of product development at Genentech, during its impressive run in the 2000s, when it became the world’s biggest cancer drug maker.
I prepared a lot of questions for my exclusive interview with Desmond-Hellmann, not thinking of gender at all. But she brought it up, and not in a way that I expected.
“People make a big deal about me being the first woman chancellor at UCSF,” Desmond-Hellmann says. “But I think it’s a much bigger deal that I’m the first chancellor with business experience.”
So Desmond-Hellmann, one of the most accomplished biotech executives ever, is still viewed in some parts as being an accomplished woman, more so than an accomplished business executive. It’s a distinction that matters. I have no doubt that if her Genentech colleague Art Levinson had taken the UCSF job, people would have looked at him primarily as the first chancellor with business experience.
Despite all the progress, it’s going to take a long, long time and a lot of conscious effort before biotech gets closer to gender balance in the most influential and visible leadership roles. If all-female networking groups are needed to help balance things out, then I say these groups deserve broad support from across the industry. Women and men alike, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. What do you think should be done to close the gender gap?
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