Breaking biotech’s glass ceiling
I’m often asked what it takes to be a successful biotech CEO and, as one of the relatively few female CEOs in our industry, what it takes to break the proverbial glass ceiling.
The attributes of successful leaders — a strong vision and sense of purpose, resilience, and optimism in the face of long odds, the ability to build and inspire a team — are not gender-specific, yet women face distinct barriers, as evidenced by the gaping gender inequity in C-suites and boardrooms in our industry.
I used to think it was a solely a pipeline problem: as more women entered the industry, that would translate over time to more women in leadership roles. But statistics have not born that out. Women enter the industry at nearly the same rate as men but make up only 30% of executives, 18% of boards, and 16% of CEOs, according to a recent report.
Addressing this gender inequity requires facing uncomfortable realities. It requires upending traditional norms, unraveling years of social conditioning, and rethinking what we do and how we do it. While there are instances of overt bias, what is more insidious are the subtle, often unconscious biases that are harder to see — and therefore, harder to change.
Few of us are born with the skills needed to be a CEO. Behind every strong leader is a strong network and supportive mentors — a factor that often works against women. C-suites, boards, and VC firms that fund early-stage biotech companies consist largely of men; their networks consist mostly of men; and they tend to mentor men “like themselves.” When filling a high-level position, these decision-makers look to their networks, which don’t include many women.
Style differences between men and women also come into play. Women don’t always put themselves forward as readily as men. In school, I was rewarded for getting good grades, following the rules, and playing nicely with others. My pedigree led Biogen to recruit me to steer the clinical development of Avonex in multiple sclerosis. But if not for the encouragement of a mentor, my path could easily have ended there.
Though eager for new challenges, I didn’t speak up. I thought if I continued to perform well, the opportunities would come. When a position to head development opened up at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, my mentor urged me to apply. I was hesitant as I did not think I had enough experience. He asked: what do you have to lose? I got the job, and that experience taught me that you have to take risks to get ahead.
Then there’s the issue of work-life balance. The notion that women often have to balance work and family commitments in ways men do not is problematic, and the pandemic has shown just how deeply embedded this imbalanced burden is, with women taking on even more of the childcare duties and reducing their workhours or dropping out of the workforce in far greater numbers than men.
So what can we do to promote gender equality in leadership roles?
First, we can create awareness with ongoing education to spot and reduce bias, leading by example, and holding individuals accountable for their actions. Mentoring and advocating for women needs to be supported at the highest levels of the organization.
Second, we need buy-in from across the industry. Company executives must recognize the tangible benefits of having a diverse leadership team. Different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences lead to better decisions and stronger companies.
Third, we must cultivate a pipeline of diverse talent and nurture it. While in the U.S. women enter biotech at similar rates as men, less than 30% of researchers and around the globe are women, according to UNESCO. Consistent with what we see in biotech, studies show that once in a STEM field, women do not progress as far as men. We need to debunk stereotypes that steer girls away from science. Young women and girls need to see role models in leadership positions, so they too know it is possible. We need to create opportunities for women to enter traditionally male-dominated networks, advocate for women in the workplace, ensure equity in pay and promotion, and actively engage in mentoring.
Finally, rethinking our policies and benefits to better support the health and well-being of all our employees is essential, including flexible work schedules, the ability to work remotely even beyond the pandemic, and family leave policies for mothers and fathers.
Like most complex issues, achieving gender equity in biotech leadership will take a consistent and concerted effort over time. While we have much work to do, I am optimistic about the future. The people in our industry are passionate, smart, and dedicated to making a difference. I’m proud to be among them. I’m also proud to be part of the small but growing contingent of women leaders in this industry, and I look forward to the day when I’m no longer one of a few, but one of many.