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Why can’t the drug industry solve its gender diversity problem?

Women weigh in on what’s working—and what isn’t—in the effort to create an inclusive culture in biotech and pharma

By Lisa M. Jarvis
March 5, 2018 | APPEARED IN Volume 96 Issue 10

In early 2016, the financial communications firm LifeSci Advisors found itself with a public relations crisis on its hands. An article in Bloomberg had skewered the firm’s decision to hire female models to serve its client party at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. The cocktail waitresses themselves were enough to stir trouble, but LifeSci Advisors doubled down on the gaffe by claiming the move brought necessary gender diversity to an event for the mostly male investors and executives who attend the annual conference..

In brief

Women are entering the drug industry at the same rate as men, but few rise to leadership positions. Amid a push to get more women on boards and in C-suites, C&EN talked with senior female executives about what initiatives are effective and what more needs to be done to fix the leaky pipeline.


Mention that party to women working in biotech today and the reaction is nearly universal: an epic eye roll, often followed by an audible sigh.

Their exasperation is palpable. How could an organization have been so tone deaf? Dig deeper, and you’ll find the subtext of those sighs: Here we are, in 2018, still needing to talk about the biotech industry’s gender diversity problem. Although the #metoo movement has reinvigorated the discussion, it can also feel like it’s going in circles.

"We always talk about what women can do. We have to change the conversation to what men can do.”

Rosana Kapeller, CSO, Nimbus Therapeutics

The issue is well defined. Women and men enter the workforce with advanced degrees in medicine and science at nearly the same rate, but for some reason, many more women either drop out or hit a plateau in their careers.

Whether it is the paucity of women on company boards, the slow progress in getting women into leadership positions at big pharma, or the alarming absence of women as scientific founders and research heads, the numbers just aren’t there. Women of color are missing almost altogether at the upper echelons, a problem the industry has yet to even begin reckoning with.

Since that infamous party, organizations have amped up the number of initiatives meant to help women ascend the ranks. Networking for women, board training for women, mentorships for women—programs have proliferated.

But are they actually moving the needle on gender diversity in biotech?

To try to answer that question, C&EN talked with nearly two dozen women working in the biosciences—in academic drug discovery, biotech start-ups, and big pharma. They shared some of the pain points in their careers, as well as concrete ideas for moving more women up the ladder.

Some are optimistic that women entering the workforce now will be the true beneficiaries of a society that values an inclusive work culture. Others worry that change is simply too slow or unfolding in a way that doesn’t get at the fundamental reasons so many women drop out of the pipeline.

If increasing women’s representation in biotech turns into a box-checking exercise rather than an overhaul of the industry’s culture, any progress won’t hold. After all, as Abbie Celniker, partner at the life sciences venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures, puts it, “The goal isn’t to create diversity for diversity’s sake. The goal is to have an inclusive culture that can be measured by diversity.”

Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Weber
Barbara Weber, CEO of Tango Therapeutics

The business case for an inclusive workforce is strong. Often-cited research by the nonprofit Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with the best gender representation on their boards also generated a significantly higher return on sales and equity than those with few or no women.

When biotech companies take the time to cultivate inclusive work environments, two good things happen, says Susan Molineaux, founder and CEO of the biotech firm Calithera Biosciences. The first is that R&D becomes more efficient “because people can speak up; they feel safe,” she says. The second “magical thing is you retain your talent.”

Moreover, women make most health care decisions for their families, and yet the industry has “so few women who are in the C-suites of companies,” says Christi Shaw, president of Lilly Bio-Medicines. It simply isn’t good business to exclude those voices when setting the drug development agenda. “It’s a disservice to the health care system that we don’t have that diversity,” Shaw says.


“If you don’t see another woman at that management table or board table, but you really like the job or the science, you’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to take it. Somebody has to break the cycle.”

Abbie Celniker, partner, Third Rock Ventures

The conversation may be louder and women-focused programming more abundant, but “the sad fact is we’re not making any real progress with our stats,” says Helen Torley, CEO of Halozyme. Torley, who also chairs the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s recently established Workplace Development, Diversity & Inclusion (WDDI) Committee, points out that representation in biotech C-suites and on boards remains dismal: Women hold just 20% of leadership roles and 10% of board of director seats.

BIO’s WDDI Committee has set a 2025 goal of getting to gender parity in leadership roles and increasing the percentage of women on boards to 30%.

Improvement can only happen if CEOs and boards consider it a priority, Torley says. Until then, the industry will be stuck in its current state of “a lot of rhetoric and not enough action.”

Efforts in the past two years to change the gender imbalance have focused on placing more women on company boards. With women holding just a tenth of board seats, it’s an easy target. And turnover and new company creation makes openings plentiful for these external adviser positions.

The upside seems clear: Company bottom lines are likely to benefit, while women taking their first board seats gain new skills and, just as important, are exposed to a new network of industry peers. Moreover, studies have shown that diverse boards breed diverse executive suites.

In pursuit of what seems like a quick fix, several “board ready” programs—including one LifeSci Advisors helped fund in atonement for its party—have been created to prepare women for the board experience. Such efforts can provide a positive environment and are well intended, but “they’re sort of ineffectual in many cases,” Third Rock’s Celniker says.

The problem, she says, isn’t that women don’t know how to be on a board; the problem is that the people who pick board members don’t know enough senior women. As a result, they tend to go back to the same small group of women—a group that can’t say yes to everything. Case in point is Halozyme’s Torley, who says six biotech CEOs approached her about joining boards during this year’s J.P. Morgan conference.

“If you’re hiring out of your network, it’s who you went to school with, who you did your Ph.D. with, and guess what? That’s a predominantly male environment.”

Wende Hutton, general partner, Canaan

The irony is that plenty of eligible women are out there. Stanford University chemist Carolyn Bertozzi, who last year took a seat on Eli Lilly & Co.’s board, says she gets cold calls from talented women in science who would like to get on boards. “Women are telling me, ‘Please, use my name; I would really love to be on a pharma or biotech board,’ ” she says. “They’ve never been approached.”

In the end, not much has changed on these boards since the LifeSci Advisors party. C&EN reviewed the boards of 75 companies that raised series A funding—a company’s first major investment round—since then. Among the firms, all of which raised at least $10 million, 39 have only men on their boards. Just two have boards where women make up 30% or more of the members.

Creating settings where women and influential men are forging professional links in a substantive way could help, Celniker says. “If you took all the energy that people put into board readiness and had 16 networking events where people sit around and talk about drug pricing, or rare genetic diseases, in a gender-diverse, inclusive setting, people are going to all of a sudden know each other.”

BIO’s WDDI Committee is addressing the problem of visibility by developing a database of board-ready women. Each person in the database will be nominated by a BIO member, with the goal of making it easier to find women with specific expertise or experience. “There are a lot of qualified candidates out there,” Torley says. Having someone else vouch for your skill set, she adds, can “bridge the barrier to getting that first position.”

Unfortunately, another barrier to increasing women’s presence in the boardroom is the very tactic companies are using to improve their dismal statistics. Since becoming CEO of a well-funded biotech firm, Tango Therapeutics, Barbara Weber has been invited to be on several boards. Recently, when one recruiter contacted her, she asked about the attributes the company sought in a new member. “I’ve been retained to bring the first woman on this board” was the answer, Weber recalls.

She was livid. “Even if that’s what you’re doing, don’t say it,” she says.

Credit: Courtesy of Susan Molineaux

“If you asked people to draw what a CSO looks like, they probably wouldn’t draw a woman.”

Susan Molineaux, founder and CEO, Calithera Biosciences

Weber’s experience seems to be the rule, not the exception. Most senior executives C&EN spoke with had at least one similar interaction with recruiters or managers. “They aren’t saying, ‘Christi, I want you on the board because you’ve spent 30 years in the industry,’ ” Lilly’s Shaw says. “Every single one has either on the front or the back end said, ‘You’re a hot commodity because you’re a woman.’ ”

Women are understandably exasperated. Rather than a reward for years of hard work and experience, a big opportunity is presented as a box-checking exercise.

Many look past the slight. “I know some women find it insulting, especially if it’s the first thing you hear on a call,” says Fiona Marshall, cofounder and chief scientific officer of Heptares Therapeutics. “I try not to be upset by it. If good opportunities come that you want to do, you should grab them and then do a good job.”

Likewise, Stanford’s Bertozzi has adopted what she describes as a Zen attitude. “I bristle at that, too,” she says. But Bertozzi chooses to take the long view. “I have to do a gut check and say, this is one of those situations where if I say yes, and enough people say yes, that might mean something.”


The leakiest pipes

“They aren’t saying, ‘Christi, I want you on the board because you’ve spent 30 years in the industry.’ Every single one has either on the front or the back end said, ‘You’re a hot commodity because you’re a woman.’ ”

Christi Shaw, president, Lilly Bio-Medicines

Efforts to balance the genders on corporate boards might involve some growing pains, but at least results can be quickly achieved. The uncomfortable reality is that other male-dominated areas of the industry will be tougher to change.

The scientific side of the business has quietly maintained a status quo. Scanning photos of the scientific founders of biotech firms reveals a monolith of white men.

Of the 75 new companies reviewed by C&EN, fewer than 40% had one woman listed among its several founders. Only two companies had more than one woman founder.

One reason for the paucity of female founders is that industry isn’t the only place in the drug development chain with a gender problem. Universities and academic medical centers—important breeding grounds for companies—have not managed to significantly increase the number of woman-run labs.

Laurie Glimcher, CEO of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a renowned immunologist, recalls looking around when she started her first lab at Harvard University in the early 1980s and seeing very few women in leadership positions. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is really going to change dramatically,’ ” she says. But 30 years later, “it’s not where I expected it to be.”

As Bertozzi noted in an April 2016 ACS Central Science editorial about academia’s gender imbalance, “Major research universities are not hiring women at a pace that would achieve a critical mass (e.g., 30%) in my lifetime, and at some top-flight universities the numbers remain so low that you can count them on one hand.”

One result is that women who reach the highest positions at biotech or big pharma firms often don’t come from the research track. Rather, they are more commonly from the commercial or clinical sides of the business. The most notable example is Emma Walmsley, a marketing executive who was plucked from GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer health care division to become the big pharma industry’s first female CEO.

None of the major U.S. or European drug companies has put a woman at the helm of its research division. Even in the wider biotech landscape, female chief scientific officers are a rarity. “If you asked people to draw what a CSO looks like, they probably wouldn’t draw a woman,” Calithera’s Molineaux says.

Rosana Kapeller, CSO of Nimbus Therapeutics, says she didn’t notice the dearth of women in top scientific roles until well into her career. In 2015, a partner at Atlas Venture, the investment firm that funded Nimbus, sent an email inviting all the scientific leaders in his portfolio to a regular gathering.

“Maybe it’s time to rethink what we value as strengths and signs of leadership.”

Lisa Marcaurelle, medicinal chemist; former head of discovery at Warp Drive Bio

“I realized I was the only woman on the list. There were 12 names, and I was the only one,” she says. “It shocked me. Most of my women friends are scientists. They are doing extremely well—why don’t they get the top jobs?”

Kapeller’s question is tough to unravel. Nearly equal numbers of women and men are entering the work force with advanced degrees. In 2015, women received 48% of medical school degrees, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. That same year, women earned 55% of doctorates in the life sciences and 38% of medicinal-chemistry-focused doctorates, according to the National Science Foundation.

But at the senior corporate level, the numbers take a nose dive. Wendy Young, senior vice president of small-molecule discovery at Genentech, points out that her field, medicinal chemistry, seems stubbornly stuck at 20%. That’s the percentage of women who are in the medicinal chemistry division of the American Chemical Society, who publish in medicinal chemistry journals, and who are featured at conferences.

Women like Kapeller and Young who have top scientific jobs and those who aspire to those roles see a range of reasons for attrition on the research track. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer,” Young says.

Jennifer Harnden-Koehler, a former executive coach and talent management expert at Talent Acceleration Group, set out to explore that question after several clients—women who were midlevel scientists at biotech companies—pointed out their careers had hit a ceiling. While most of the women had the scientific chops to move up the ladder, they were having a tough time being seen as strategic thinkers.

To understand the issue better, Harnden-Koehler and a colleague interviewed 40 midlevel female scientists, 21 managers, and 15 human resources professionals across 19 life sciences companies.

The sample size is small, but the unpublished report highlighted a few factors that could be keeping women from ascending the scientific track.

“The feedback we get now from a female candidate who is standing in front of our conference room giving a talk is, ‘Wow, there are a lot of women in the audience.’ ”

Rebecca Ruck, director of process research, Merck & Co.

Most prominent was the disconnect between how women and their managers perceived their leadership capabilities. Sometimes the difference came down to word choice. Women, for example, tended to use collaborative language like “our plan,” whereas men were more likely to take ownership by talking about “my plan.”

A bigger issue was divergence in what midlevel scientists and their managers consider strategic thinking and business savvy. Women scientists tended to present a strategy along with one or more backup plans, whereas men more often offered a single vision. For women in the study, accounting for the possibility of failure was simply being an authentic leader. But their managers interpreted the caveats as a lack of confidence.

Lisa Marcaurelle, who has led discovery chemistry at several Boston-area biotech firms—most recently at Warp Drive Bio—participated in the study. She says the insight was stunning. “I totally do that. I never thought it was a bad thing,” she says.

Harnden-Koehler says women don’t need to change who they are to address the perception gap. Rather, they just need to make subtle changes to their style. “It’s not being or acting different,” she says, but being aware of the type of communication that managers interpret as confident, strategic thinking.

The survey gets at the larger question of whether the pharmaceutical industry needs to look beyond the phenotype of “executive presence”—business jargon often used to describe conventionally accepted leadership skills—and embrace a wider variety of styles. For example, one Boston-area biotech CSO who, like several women C&EN spoke with, requested anonymity out of concern that she will shift the focus from her work to her gender, notes that her quiet style is wrongly perceived as lack of confidence, whereas, as she puts it, “loudership” is often rewarded.

“Maybe it’s time to rethink what we value as strengths and signs of leadership,” Marcaurelle says.

Perception and reality

“This is the beginning of stopping that leaky pipeline. CEOs have absolute control over changing this overnight.”

Helen Torley, CEO, Halozyme

Companies also need to take a closer look at whether they are introducing bias into hiring and promotion, according to Halozyme’s Torley.

In a Liftstream and MassBio study released last year of more than 900 Massachusetts life sciences workers, women more often than men found bias in performance evaluations and the promotion process. Notably, at the C-suite and board level, men saw no bias in performance evaluations or the promotion process, whereas up to 20% of women believed those processes to be flawed.

Whether conscious or unconscious, such biases hurt a candidate’s prospects. And the differences in how people are perceived can be subtle.

For example, Deborah Palestrant, vice president of corporate development and strategy at Relay Therapeutics, says that when she solicits feedback on job candidates, managers describe men and women differently. “With men, the response is often led with the person’s accomplishments,” she says. “With women, it is often initially focused on style and behavior; capabilities come second.”

Lesley Stolz, head of JLabs California, Johnson & Johnson’s collection of three West Coast incubators, notes that even men acknowledge women are judged differently. She says a male senior executive lamented during a party at the J.P. Morgan conference that men are easily able to disagree with a colleague without stirring up trouble, while women aren’t given the same leeway. “It’s such a fine line for women’s behavior to be strong and forceful without tipping over that line to be seen as a bitch,” she says.

Credit: Courtesy of Carol Mulrooney
Carol Mulrooney, cheminformatics scientist at Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard

Large companies are using a range of strategies to keep bias from creeping into hiring and promoting. Bristol-Myers Squibb, for example, is adopting a new format for its interview process. Instead of putting people through a series of one-on-one meetings, BMS now conducts panel interviews where everyone can hear how questions are asked and how answers are perceived.

“I think it has made a big difference,” says Luisa Salter-Cid, BMS’s head of immunology discovery. “It’s more open. Whatever biases you have, good or bad, come to light.”

Some big firms are trying to tap a more diverse pool of job applicants. That might sound like an obvious goal, but executives universally say that when they ask recruiters to show them a mix of candidates—men, women, people of color—recruiters come back with a pile of résumés from white men.

An intentional effort can move the needle. Over the past decade, Genentech has tried to ensure its candidate pool includes at least 30% women; today, women represent 50% of the senior leadership team within the firm’s R&D organization.

Credit: Courtesy of Wendy Young
Wendy Young, head of small-molecule discovery at Genentech

Rebecca Ruck, director of Merck & Co.’s process research group, has taken a purposeful approach to change the culture in her group, a typically male-dominated area of the drug-development process. For the past four years, she has personally led recruitment efforts at universities and, in partnership with ACS, convinced Merck to create a research award for female organic chemists at the tail end of graduate school.

Her methods are working. Moreover, they have created a virtuous cycle: Having a diverse process research team makes attracting diverse candidates easier. “The feedback we get now from a female candidate who is standing in front of our conference room giving a talk is, ‘Wow, there are a lot of women in the audience,’ ” Ruck says.

But she underscores that the work doesn’t stop with recruiting more women into companies. To stop the pipeline from leaking, women need to have a reason to stay in science.

Ruck, who started at Merck 13 years ago, says that only a third of the women hired alongside her or in subsequent years remain. “It’s pretty depressing, to be honest,” she says.

Credit: Courtesy of Lesley Stolz
Lesley Stolz, head of JLabs California

Most left the lab altogether, a trend observed by other chemists working in drug discovery. Carol Mulrooney, a cheminformatics scientist at Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard, has seen a similar phenomenon among her peers. “It’s more common to see women get ahead by moving out of the lab and into project management,” she says.

A hand up

“If good opportunities come that you want to do, you should grab them and then do a good job.”

Fiona Marshall, founder and CSO, Heptares Therapeutics

Over the years, some critics have argued that the biopharmaceutical industry’s gender imbalance persists because companies need to hire the best candidates. Those people, the argument goes, are more often than not male.

Wende Hutton, general partner at the venture capital firm Canaan, calls the idea that the industry is a meritocracy “a fig leaf.” As she puts it, “If you’re hiring out of your network, it’s who you went to school with, who you did your Ph.D. with, and guess what? That’s a predominantly male environment.”

For real change to happen, company executives and venture capitalists—predominantly men—will need to go out of their comfort zones. Much of the conversation and programming has centered on women expanding their networks, but women note that men, too, need to participate in that process.

“I’ve been in a lot of these programs, and they’ve helped me a lot, but what we really need are coed programs,” Nimbus’s Kapeller says.

That means men need to take on more mentorship roles, offering advice and coaching that can help women hone their leadership skills. But it also means sponsorship—a role that requires actively advocating for people whose careers show promise. It’s that sponsorship piece that many believe is missing for women who find themselves stuck in their careers. Having a senior executive who will vouch for one’s ability to stretch into a new role is critical.

Credit: Courtesy of Luisa Salter-Cid
Luisa Salter-Cid, head of immunology discovery at Bristol-Myers Squibb

“When you get behind closed doors in succession management, that’s where sponsorship comes in. It’s who is pulling you up,” Lilly’s Shaw says. “And because it is mostly men in that room, identifying them as sponsors of women and holding them accountable” will be key to diversifying the industry’s top tier.

Mentorship can be helpful, but “sponsorship is what has changed my career track,” BMS’s Salter-Cid says. Relay’s Palestrant agrees that she has benefited from having an advocate who says, “Go for it, and I’m going to help you get there.”

BIO’s WDDI Committee is asking CEOs to choose two diverse candidates for sponsorship. The hope is to put those people in new roles “to see how they can scale and stretch,” Halozyme’s Torley says. “This is the beginning of stopping that leaky pipeline. CEOs have absolute control over changing this overnight.”

Family matters

Credit: Courtesy of Deb Palestrant
Deb Palestrant, vice president of corporate development and strategy at Relay Therapeutics

Another argument often used to explain biotech’s gender imbalance is that women are opting out to have families. And indeed, the Liftstream-MassBio report found women take career breaks more often than men.

But attributing the high attrition rate to parenthood is too easy an answer. The report found that women are taking breaks along their entire career, suggesting they are caring for elderly parents. Third Rock’s Celniker says the report also showed more women were opting out because of the corporate culture itself: They didn’t want to go into jobs where they don’t see other women.

This isn’t to ignore the fact that women do indeed bear children. The Liftstream report, for example, recommends that companies offer paid parental leave, encouraging an environment where childcare responsibilities are shared. And the survey showed women at all levels of the industry place far greater value on flexible work schedules than men.

Some people are working within their organizations to foster work-life balance during the early years of women’s careers. Dana-Farber’s Glimcher has tackled the family piece head on. While dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, she turned years of talk about a day-care center into an actual day-care center. Then she reserved 60 slots at the center for junior faculty whom she was recruiting, a signal to young women that they would be supported there.

“Women are telling me, ‘Please, use my name; I would really love to be on a pharma or biotech board.’ They’ve never been approached.”

Carolyn Bertozzi, chemistry professor and serial entrepreneur, Stanford University

Earlier in her career, at the National Institutes of Health, Glimcher started a program to give primary caregivers—mainly women—a lab technician to help them balance work and home life. Now at Dana-Farber, she has a similar program to pay for a technician or postdoctoral researcher for assistant professors. “More needs to be done, and I’m bent and determined to raise a bigger fund for that,” Glimcher says.

While women advocate for flexible support systems like the one Glimcher is developing, they also stress that taking time off for family doesn’t have to derail a woman’s career trajectory. Rather, choosing a slower, but still smart, path can enhance a career.

Heptares’s Marshall decided to alter the course of her travel-heavy career for a few years after looking at a roll of vacation pictures. “I realized that in every single photograph of my children they were wearing a T-shirt bought from the Boston airport,” she recalls. “They either got the Red Sox T-shirt or the lobster on the front, and I thought, ‘This is terrible.’ ”

She stepped away from a big biotech job to consult, a career shift that allowed her more flexibility and less travel. After a few years, Marshall jumped back in at full throttle. “In the end, those five years actually helped me,” she says, noting that she had the opportunity to work with small biotech firms and venture capitalists, widen her network, and learn how start-ups are formed.

The next chapter

“I think the ratio will change.”

Laurie Glimcher, president and CEO, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, on the number of women in biotech

The spotlight might be fixed on biotech’s gender problem, but unless more men become active participants, the culture won’t change, senior executives say. “We always talk about what women can do,” Nimbus’s Kapeller says. “We have to change the conversation to what men can do.”

Indeed, Lilly’s Shaw worries that nothing will change if women and people of color are the only believers in the value of diversity. At past organizations, Shaw says, she cultivated leadership teams with both gender and racial diversity, but after she left, “it all changed back within a year. How do I make it stick?”

Although women are frustrated with the slow pace of change, they see a few signs of progress. Glimcher, for one, is encouraged that among the junior faculty at Dana-Farber, at least one woman has already started a company. “I think the ratio will change,” she says.

J&J’s Stolz is excited to see female-led companies at the JLabs sites she oversees. Now that these firms have made it into the competitive JLabs environment, the next test will be whether their leaders can succeed in raising significant amounts of venture capital.

Canaan’s Hutton points out that until five years ago, she never had a company in her investment portfolio with a woman CEO, chief medical officer, or head of research who had come up through the scientific side of the business. “Now I do. And that’s exciting,” she says.

Women who have succeeded in biotech hope more women decide to reach upward rather than opt out. “We have to encourage women to be pioneers,” Third Rock’s Celniker says. “If you don’t see another woman at that management table or board table, but you really like the job or the science, you’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to take it. Somebody has to break the cycle.”