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Improving Odds for Women in Tech? Take Notes from Biotech


Xconomy Boston — 

At our entrepreneurial support organization, the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED), we often joke about adhering to the proper dress and catering code for our networking events: jeans and beer for tech; suits, wine and cocktails for life sciences.

But there is more to these superficial differences between the two networks serving 1,200 entrepreneurial companies in the Research Triangle Park region of North Carolina. Simply put, there are many, many more women attending the life science events. It’s been that way for years.

And that got me thinking. For all the talk about improving diversity and inclusion in tech, the real-life example of success in biotech, especially for women entrepreneurs, offers some clues on what it may take to change the trajectory in IT. Here’s my list of key observations that impact inclusion, based on experience and a number of conversations I’ve had with female leaders in the life science industry:

Culture. I’m not talking about the ability to take risks—that’s true for startups, no matter if it’s the latest app company or a novel medical device. I think this is more about the nature of science, which requires a high degree of collaboration, and a tradition of seeking advice from peers to validate results. “I have always thought gender was a neutral matter—it never helped, and hopefully, never hurt,” said a female biotech company president who asked not to be named. “My focus has been on finding great people with relevant interests,” she said. By necessity, biotech companies have to build teams with diverse experiences and perspectives, work habits developed early in research labs and academia. IT companies can benefit by thinking more about team-building, and less about reinforcing a culture of “star” performers. Women, in particular, are put off by workplaces that pit co-workers against each other for recognition and career advancement. A little collaboration can go a long way.

Pipeline. When I was in high school many years ago, there weren’t many girls enrolled in AP biology classes. That’s changed in a single generation. The US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reports that girls now equal or exceed the number of boys enrolled in high school biology and chemistry classes, and, as of 2010, are awarded more than half of all PhDs nationwide. While women are still not starting biotech firms at equal rates as men, they are closing the gap as they become better prepared. College programs have been effective in attracting women into life sciences, but participation of women in other STEM programs—physics, engineering, and computer science— is at about only 25 percent. Is there a way to use the same pathway that led to such dramatic increases in participation in the natural sciences to boost enrollment in technology-related fields? The lack of qualified women in the tech job market speaks to the importance of investment in these types of education initiatives to keep women interested in pursuing a career in what remains a stubbornly non-traditional academic field.

Training. Careers inside large pharma, often a precursor to a biotech startup, offer women scientists the opportunity to gain experience in commercialization, finance, and clinical trials. Christy Shaffer, PhD, now a general partner at Hatteras Venture Partners, became CEO of Inspire Pharmaceuticals after a diverse career at the former Burroughs Wellcome. “As an international project leader, I was able to learn a broad skill set that was instrumental,” she said. “I ultimately became CEO at Inspire and was convinced to do so by all the male board members.”

Shaffer says she has benefited from … Next Page »

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