Biotech: Where are the women on boards?

team-meeting-in-office-5lThe biotech sector lies at the center of several different forces shaping the economic landscape: companies originate in the halls of academia, they maintain close relationships with the pharmaceutical industry, and because of the capital intensive funding model associated with the industry, they are subject to a number of influences from venture capitalists as well. As a smaller industry, with approximately 2,300 companies in the U.S., biotech offers sharp insight into how niche industries are seeking to bring about fast changes in the number of women present in their board rooms and directors’ meetings. Since 52% of US biotech companies maintain all-male boards, the numbers are clearly painting a picture; women are not being invited to the table.

One woman takes note

Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist and Harvard graduate, is one of the pioneering women in the field. While she saw the ratio of male to female professors at MIT rise from 11:1 when she began work there in 1971, to 5:1, partly due to her own committee work, she was saddened to realize the names of her women colleagues were still missing from the lists of scientific advisory board members (SABs) and founders of private biotech companies when she began an informal survey in 2012.

As a scientist, it was a natural step to start collecting the data. Her results were shocking: only 5% of SAB members and company founders were women. When she followed this up by asking female colleagues about how often they had been asked to serve on boards, her suspicion that it could be a lack of invitations was founded. Even though there are those who continue to claim the cause of women’s absence is their own lack of ability or interest–due to domestic responsibilities–the research states otherwise. As reported by the science journal, Nature, men and women tend to join SAB’s around the 20th year of their career, long after the strain of raising children has passed.

A more recent study by the European recruitment firm, Liftstream, takes an even closer look at the reasons behind biotech’s lack of progress on gender parity. With a smaller sample size from an industry at the crossroads of influence from other sectors, the impacts of the unseen barriers to women’s advancement, like unconscious bias, are highly visible.

Education is not the issue

The 2014 study begins with a brief report on the gender distribution of those holding advanced degrees. Unlike computer science, where only 18% of graduates are women, the numbers are much closer to even in the diverse fields of study relevant to the biotech industry.

Percent of Women Graduates



PhD in Life Sciences



MBAs at Top Universities



Medical Doctors



Despite a healthy supply of educated and willing workers, the study found that women account for 21.7% of the leadership (chief executives and functional leadership positions) in Europe and 20.8% in the U.S.

Ambition is not the issue

The 2014 study focused its inquiry on small and medium sized enterprises (SME’s), conducting sixty interviews with leaders from biotech and collecting data from five hundred and sixty surveys distributed throughout the world. 46.3% of women respondents claimed attainment of a board level position as a personal goal, compared with the only slightly higher 47.9% of men.

So, despite equal levels of education and ambition, 16% of women in the C-suite were contacted about a paid board position in the 2 years preceding the study. Almost 60% of men at the same level of leadership replied yes to this question.

For men and women at the VP and Director levels, the numbers were not too different from one another, but men still have a 5% lead over women with 23% claiming to have been asked compared to only 18% of women.

They did find that when invited to the party, women do accept the opportunity less often than men (38% of women say yes compared to 53% of men), but there were many stories from women who wanted to be there, but were not yet successful in finding their way in.

According to the researchers, “several of our male interviewees readily identified that men are still much more comfortable appointing other men.”

While the ever-present impacts of unconscious bias can be disheartening, it is a great step forward to see a growing awareness of the issue. This is always the first step in creating change, and can go a long way to helping all of us understand how to continue navigating the path toward gender parity.

By Rebecca S. Caum