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In Wake Of Infamous Biotech Party, 20 Women Join New Exec Training

Xconomy National — 

[Updated 8/24/16, 1 a.m. See below.] A new program to prepare high-ranking women in the biotech industry for corporate board seats has unveiled its first class of 20.

In other circumstances the five-day workshop, scheduled this fall at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, might go unnoticed among the sea of executive training programs offered every day.

But the “Boardroom Ready” program, as it’s called, is the result of widespread demand for action to break biotech’s glass ceiling. The discussion came to a boil earlier this year after a small New York investor relations consultancy hired scantily-clad women to attend its cocktail party at the J.P. Morgan conference in January. [The description of LifeSci Advisors was corrected in this paragraph.]

The firm, LifeSci Advisors, is looking to pay penance by helping fund the training program. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) are also covering costs for the program. But not all costs: Attendees are on the hook for about $4,000, according to organizers. LifeSci Advisors CEO Andrew McDonald deferred questions to a spokeswoman, who did not disclose figures but said the firm made a “significant contribution.” [Updated with spokeswoman’s comment.]

The 20 attendees were selected from 70 applicants, according to Dawn Hocevar, president elect of Women in Bio, the advocacy group running the program. The training will focus on board-level problems such as fiduciary responsibility, corporate strategy, and legal liability, according to the organizers. Participants will also be paired with coaches and will network for board seats after the course is over. The organizers say they want to place the entire inaugural class on boards within a year of completion of the course.

In an industry whose rank and file is split about equally along gender lines, righting the gender balance at the executive level is a top priority. In a 2014 survey of biotech gender diversity, U.K. recruitment firm Liftstream surveyed nearly 1,500 public companies in the U.S. and Europe. More than half of boardrooms were all male (52 percent in the U.S., 60 percent in Europe).

At small-to-midsized U.S. companies, just 9.7 percent of directors and 20.9 percent of leaders were women. At big companies the number of female directors went up to 19.2 percent, but leadership numbers came down to 13.9 percent.

The situation is exacerbated in small private companies because traditional venture firms, whose partners sit on the boards of their portfolio companies, are male-dominated. Only 9.6 percent of partners in traditional VC firms were women, Liftstream found.

McDonald told Xconomy in May that his firm would help place 15 women on boards by the end of 2017. Placement of the Boardroom Ready participants would apparently count toward that goal.

An advisory board of women and men is meant to hold the investment bank accountable. One member said that LifeSci Advisors is “making great strides.” “They have continued to support diversity in the board room and encourage companies to see the benefits of having female representation,” said Robin Smith, founder, president and chair of the Stem For Life Foundation, via email. [Updated with Smith’s comment and corrected to show that the advisory board also includes men.]

The advisory board includes also Kate Bingham, a veteran venture capitalist who co-authored a scathing open letter after news of the cocktail party broke. Bingham could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Boardroom Ready training is based on an internal program at Biogen called “Raising the Bar” that Biogen is handing off to Women in Bio. Of the 20 women in Boardroom Ready, five are vice presidents or higher at Biogen, but none of them were in Biogen’s internal program, according to Hocevar.

Others come from firms such as Dimension Therapeutics (NASDAQ: DMTX), whose CEO is on the LifeSci Advisors oversight board, Blueprint Medicines (NASDAQ: BPMC), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ), and Prothena (NASDAQ: PRTA). Prothena chief business officer Tara Nickerson called the program a “tremendous opportunity to engage and learn from the collective experiences of a group of highly accomplished leaders in the life sciences.” [Updated with Nickerson’s comment.]

Photo “Empty Boardroom” courtesy of reynermedia via Creative Commons.