It’s been more than a year since an infamous party with hired models in cocktail dresses captured the biotech community’s attention at the 2016 J.P. Morgan conference.
There has been plenty of talk since about closing biotech’s notable gender gap. At this year’s J.P Morgan conference, for example, a group of 100 life science executives and others pledged to follow a list of gender diversity “best practices.”
There has also been some action. Launched last fall, a nonprofit mentoring program for women in healthcare and biotech has already signed up about 100 women, according to its founder.
The group, called CSweetener, is meant as a boost for women who are nearing the executive level. It is the brainchild of life sciences investor Lisa Suennen, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and publishes a popular industry blog and podcast. Suennen and cofounder Lisa Serwin have cobbled together $125,000 in donations, grants, and sponsorships to commission a software platform that could be what Suennen calls a “Match.com for mentors.” Because of her high profile, she says she receives frequent requests from women executives for help and advice. “If I said yes to everyone, I wouldn’t have time to work,” she says. “So I thought, ‘What if I can outsource this problem?'”
Despite a rank-and-file that is roughly 50 percent women, fewer than 10 percent of biotech CEOs are women, according to a recent report from U.K. recruitment firm Liftstream, which studied 177 biotechs that went public between 2012 and 2015.
Board seats are another measure. Less than five percent of the board members were women at the time of those companies’ IPOs.
There was a hint of progress in the report: 58 percent of public companies have at least one female board member, up from 48 percent three years ago. But there’s far to go. Public biotech boards would need 40 more years to achieve gender equity.
Run by the nonprofit group Women In Bio, the program is sponsored in part by the life-science advisory firm that threw the cocktail party. For now, the plan is to hold Boardroom Ready once a year; the next one takes place over two weekends in the fall.
Suennen’s investor peers deserve no small portion of the gender gap blame (as she often points out on her blog). Fewer than 10 percent of life-science venture partners are women, according to Liftstream. The low number of female VCs perpetuates the gender gap because venture investors sit on their companies’ boards until and often well beyond the initial public offering. “Our study shows that the male dominance of venture capital brings unintended implications for the portfolio companies in terms of their board diversity, and consequently may also have an undesirable effect on their ability to attract talent,” the report reads.
Suennen recently joined GE Ventures, the venture arm of General Electric and one of the few firms in the traditional or corporate VC world with a high percentage of women. (GE Ventures has donated to CSweetener.)
In addition to the 100 women who have signed up for CSweetener, the network now counts 110 mentor volunteers, Suennen says. Roughly 15 percent are men. If they are not involved, adds Suennen, “nothing will ever change.”
Ned Scheetz, founder of Bay Area healthcare venture firm Aphelion Capital and father of two daughters, explains that he signed up to be a CSweetener mentor because healthcare needs more women entrepreneurs. “An outsized percent of venture backed companies are founded and led by high-ego, take-the-hill men and backed by equally Y-dominant venture groups,” Scheetz says. “Much of healthcare is about understanding and serving the subtler, empathetic needs of humanity, and testosterone-driven ambition may miss some of those finer points.”
Many corporations have internal programs to pair women with mentors or sponsors. But the set-up is fraught with potential conflicts: how freely can a woman speak her mind about the pros and cons of her job, or about her ambitions, to a person higher up the corporate ladder, even if that person has pledged support? CSweetener is meant to provide independent mentoring without conflicted relationships. Mentors are required to have C-suite experience and no financial or business ties to their mentees—a rule to discourage women from joining the network to sell products or raise funds, Suennen says.
CSweetener requires a $250 fee from mentees. (Mentors sign up for free.) With a few hundred thousand dollars more, Suennen would like to build more community tools into the organization’s software—giving mentors a chance to compare notes, for example—and offer training material for mentees. Negotiation skills would be a priority. “Women don’t often ask for what they want,” Suennen says. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”