Magazine Article | October 4, 2018

Improving Diversity in Life Sciences: 4 Ways to Turn Outrage into Action

Source: Life Science Leader

By Amy Schulman & Alan Crane

For an industry that is all about solving the world’s hardest problems, life sciences companies have lagged in an area where we should be leaders. This year’s news cycle has been a hard reminder of just how far we have to go in making life sciences companies truly welcoming to women, people of color, and other minority groups: topless dancers at an industry party (and the defense of it), systematic harassment in STEM academia, and the Chemical and Engineering News report on the “leaky pipeline,” where women employees make up 50 percent of entry-level positions but 20 percent of leadership roles and 10 percent of board seats in life sciences (a phenomenon that is compounded for minority women employees).

Amy Schulman
It’s tempting to read such reports, like so much of the news today, and throw our hands up in defeat. After all, these problems are multifaceted in origin, and solving them requires fortitude and courage.

The good news is that within our respective organizations, we are leaders — and many things are in our control. Changing our attitudes, policies, and practices as founders, executives, and investors can help make our organizations places where women and minorities can succeed and grow.

At Polaris Partners and our affiliate funds, we believe our optimism and passion for transformation should extend to the makeup of our organizations. We certainly do not have all the answers, but we would like to share a few tips that have worked for us, as well as a few practices in the industry we admire.


Alan Crane
While this might sound like fluff, real change won’t result from anemic initiatives. Often a respect for diversity comes from a fundamental and genuine set of values about people.

For example, take Pandion Therapeutics, which is one of our recently funded companies focused on tissue-specific immunomodulation for autoimmune diseases and transplantation. Pandion has gender, racial, sexual orientation, and religious diversity represented at every level of the organization: the board, the founders, the management, and the broader team. A focus on maximizing opportunities for each individual is core to the values at Pandion. I (Alan here) have always believed that organizations that genuinely care about the career growth and well-being of their employees outperform those that don’t. These values need to come from the leadership, and we were lucky enough to recruit a CEO (Tony Coyle) and CSO (Jo Viney) who are not only world-class immunologists but who also have this kind of genuine concern for each employee. In fact, the management of Pandion has taken this one step further by providing leadership to our community in advancing the cause of woman in science (Jo is the president of the board of Women in the Enterprise of Science and Technology) and the LGBTQ community in biotech (of which Tony is a part) through partnering with OUTBio. For Pandion, taking care of its people is part of the core mission of the company.

With this comes a viewpoint that having a diverse team is inherently valuable to your company, not a box-checking exercise or quota-filling exercise.

A common misconception is that hiring a diverse representation of backgrounds, races, and genders means settling for less-qualified candidates. I (Amy here) have been challenged with this very point when speaking on the topic of women in life sciences. To combat this, speak the language scientists love: data. Get your teams familiar with the studies showing that companies with diverse makeups perform better or the recent Boston Consulting Group‘s study showing that women entrepreneurs generate more revenue per dollar of venture investment than male leaders do.

Similarly, when you share breakthrough research or expert opinions in your industry with your team, be conscious of giving credit to all the contributors. The more we highlight the professional strength of people from diverse backgrounds, the more we fight the incorrect perception that we are settling for less-accomplished candidates.


Tactically, this one is quite simple, and its impact is profound. For our company, Lyndra, it starts with a space on our website, called Lyndra Inspired, where employees share why they are excited about working for us. This sells the story and values of our company through a mix of perspectives and voices, from an entry-level scientist who grew up in a luchador family in Mexico to our COO who hails from a tiny, quintessentially Midwest town.

"Prospective applicants need to see themselves in your company’s website."

Prospective applicants need to see themselves in your company’s website — if they find a homogenous group of people, they opt out before you even have the chance to sell them otherwise. It may take years to transform your C-Suite to be as representative as you’d like it to be, so be mindful of showing your whole team, not just top leadership, on your company’s website.

The platform you build for this conversation should go beyond your online presence, too. At Pandion, we host events highlighting minority-led organizations and the work they are doing in life sciences. While this might feel like an extracurricular, it’s essential to establishing our employer brand as a company that cares about diverse issues and groups of people. Plus, it’s an efficient way to connect with your potential next hire, without them even realizing they’re being recruited.

Which brings us to our next point. …


Life sciences and venture capital are both industries that hinge heavily on the strength of relationships and professional networks. Positions aren’t posted so much as word of great candidates spreads like wildfire. While we think this a great way to hire top scientists or proven candidates, this referral-based approach sadly benefits white men over women or minority candidates.

"A common misconception is that hiring a diverse representation of backgrounds, races, and genders means settling for less-qualified candidates."

So for every internal relationship you build and every candidate you source through a connection, take a step to expand and broaden your network by getting involved and posting job openings with professional organizations, such as WEST, the Keystone Symposia, the National Research Mentoring Network, the Minority Scientists Network, and the Biomedical Science Careers Program. For Jo, her leadership at WEST allows her to both engage in her lifelong passion of empowering women in life sciences and have continual access to a strong and diverse pipeline of potential hires. While on the surface this may come across as quota filling, it’s simply doing the work to find people who are different from you and may not come through the same homogenous channels you’re used to. Full transparency: This is going to likely add to the time it takes to hire the candidates you need to hit your milestones, and it is a reason we believe hiring never stops. Always be on the lookout for great, diverse sources of talent so you’re not under pressure to make the easiest, most obvious hire when you need to fill a position.

Be just as mindful of your application and interviewing processes. Write job descriptions that articulate the needs of the company but don’t scare off candidates who don’t have all of the qualifications. As a study conducted by Hewlett Packard showed, men apply when they meet 60 percent of qualifications in a posting, while women are hesitant to do so if they aren’t at 100 percent. Invite people to get in touch even if they don’t see the position that fits them exactly, or offer application avenues that cater to a range of skill sets. A job posting at Sequoia Capital, for example, offers four ways to apply, from traditional resume and college transcript to an essay that has you think through a problem as a venture capitalist would.

When it comes to interviews and promotions, be careful of catering to personality over a body of work and favoring the more assertive applicants or pleasant conversationalists over the most qualified. Bristol Myers- Squibb has taken to interviewing candidates as a group to ensure an individual interviewer’s perception of a candidate’s personality or answers aren’t incorrectly coloring their decision making.


Statistics show that women’s salaries take a hit with each child, while men’s do the opposite after fatherhood.

So it’s on us to shape company cultures to make space for people to be parents or care for their aging parents. In addition to offering generous family leave and flexible time-off policies, extend this to your everyday operations: Don’t needlessly schedule meetings before school or on weekends. And don’t be afraid as senior women to note your out-of-work-commitments.

Beyond creating the policy, we as leaders are responsible for living them. It’s a profound thing when executives mention their families, hobbies, and life outside of work in their professional bios and in office conversations, and when they take time out to engage in a family activity or care for a relative. As an example, Joanne Kotz, president of Polaris portfolio company Jnana Therapeutics, had to reschedule an interview because she was home with her sick child. The candidate ultimately took the job, in part because of the positive message he said this sent regarding the company’s leadership and culture.

Of course, leading an organization brings with it many responsibilities and long hours, but eliminating all life outside of that shows younger employees that’s the only way to advance and scares off strong candidates who aren’t willing to do that (and won’t actually need to).

This balance is not at odds with building a high-performing company. It’s important to move definitions of success away from hours glued to a desk to problems solved and impact had.


If all of this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. We’re all in life sciences because we want to change outcomes. No one said it was easy, right? The same rigor needs to be applied in the quest to build truly diverse teams (yes, it’s a quest).

ALAN CRANE joined Polaris Partners in 2002 and serves as an entrepreneur partner. In this role, he focuses on building and investing in healthcare companies.

AMY SCHULMAN joined Polaris Partners in 2014 and is Managing Partner of the affiliated LS Polaris Innovation Fund and co-founder and CEO of Lyndra.