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 … Next Page »
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