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200 Women and 5 Men: How Women in Bio’s Network Could Close the Gender Gap

Xconomy National — 

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.

Women in Bio's Seattle chapter kickoff

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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  • Greetings, Luke. I throughly enjoyed this article. You nuanced it just about right, I believe. Don’t forget Lisa Schaefer and Cathering Kershort at Signature Genomics or Dr. Katherine Tuttle, Providence Research Center, Providence-Sacred Heart Medical Center, all here in Spokane. HSSA is just about ready to announce our health sciences research strategic plan findings and our first RFPs within a few weeks. I will keep you posted. Regards. Susan

  • Great job Luke highlighting an incredible evening for WIB. Your stats are dead on and balanced. The industry is alive and ready for change and women are now ready to become fully engaged in playing in the process of it all! With more women than men receiving advanced degrees, we know that with the proper mentorship and training, they will close the gaps that exist between the genders in relation to the potential to achieve executive level positions within key organizations. As Chair of WIB chapters, I see the same enthusiasm for this organization around the world. Thanks to Seattle for coming on board!

  • Mary Allen

    I think you hit the nail on the head in your third paragraph, in terms of what the core issue is:

    “…and help build up the self-confidence it takes to get ahead in management, ask for a raise, or start a company.”

    When I compare the successful men (or women) in BioTech to the women (or men) who are trying to break through the glass ceiling, the fundamental issue comes down to one of self-confidence. Those who have it excel. Those who don’t, or those who question themselves, particularly publicly, struggle or find they can’t get past a middle management position. The problem is that more men come through our system of education with a high level of confidence in their knowledge, skills and experience than do women, which then feeds the imbalance. If we can find a way to arm young women with just as much confidence in themselves as the young men, we will help solve the gender imbalance issue in time. And this probably transcends industries. It just may be that more mature industries have found ways to help women along the way than the BioTech industry has to date. As we mature as an industry, I hope and expect we will work to offer women the opportunities and support they need to reach the same heights as the men. Until then, I am counting on the fact that schools today are encouraging girls and offering them equal access to sports and leadeship roles that will help establish the foundation for self-confidence in business.

  • Thanks for all the comments. I wanted to pass along a press release I just saw today from the White House and National Science Foundation. This announcement describes a new policy in which scientists will be able to delay a research grant by 1 year to take care of a newborn, or handle other family issues. Thanks to Adriana Alejandro, who pointed this out earlier today on Twitter.


  • Cynthia Adkins

    Great article, Luke. Yes, it was inspiring to see so many successful women and young women having fun, talking, making connections, raising their profiles and accelerating their careers. To paraphrase Matt Ridley, it’s less important how clever any one of us is – what really matters is how smart the collective brain is, and the collective brainpower of the women and men at the WIB-Seattle Metro kick-off event was remarkable. Here’s to the power of networking, collaboration, mentoring, and professional development. Three cheers for the new WIB-Seattle Metro!

  • Stacie Byars

    Very nice, Luke. I appreciate your thoughtful capture of the “essence” of this important issue. Thank you for advocating for women and men in life sciences, and for including WIB in the conversation. Cheers, my friend!