By Wayne Koberstein, Executive Editor, Life Science Leader magazine
Follow Me On Twitter @WayneKoberstein
What were the wins and losses for women in the industry during the past year, and what is their outlook for the coming year? We wanted a real-time assessment from the people most affected by those questions — women executives. The advocacy group, Women In Bio, backed by LifeSci Advisors, helped us recruit leading women in biopharma companies and organizations to share their views of women’s current state of progress and the prospects for short-term change in the industry.
In all, we hear from 11 women and one man in biopharma. Although we were not aiming for “balance” here — there are plenty of opposing opinions out there already — the sole gender-exception in this group supplies another valuable viewpoint, that of a man working hard to help other men see the world the way women in biopharma often see and encounter it.
This was not a survey or even a scientific sampling of opinions, however. We cast a wide net in numbers, size, and type of companies and organizations to seek input, but the main mission was to find women who would take the time and risk to write down deeper thoughts on the key issues. I say “risk” because one of the barriers for women appears to be the relatively high risk they face in individually declaring their views on controversial subjects. Risk may increase in proportion to size of company, perhaps explaining why almost all of our respondents lead startups or smaller pharmas.
Essentially, I have taken all the written responses and condensed them below with summaries and selected quotes. We will post a complete transcript of the full responses on our website in parallel with this print article.
MEASURES OF PROGRESS
One matter that must be clear from the beginning of this discussion — the position of women at the executive and board levels in biopharma is far from equal to men’s. Moreover, real barriers still exist to making it more so. If it were otherwise, an evaluation of women’s progress toward equality would make no sense. Because progress for industry women can only happen through a series of positive events, minus the setbacks, our discussion starts with concrete examples of both in the recent past, as well as expectations for the immediate future. Though our virtual-roundtable panelists agree on many of the facts, they differ more often on possible remedies for the slow progress, and even current retrogressive developments, they see.
What were the main wins and losses for women in the industry during the past year, and what is their outlook for the coming year?
“I see slow but steady progress toward more representation of women in positions of leadership in the industry,” says Leah Makley, president and CEO of View- Point Therapeutics. Makley and several other panelists mention they were particularly encouraged by the appointment of Emma Walmsley as CEO of GlaxoSmith- Kline last April.
Sally Susman, executive VP of corporate affairs at Pfizer, focuses on significant advancements in recruiting, retaining, and raising women into leadership positions. “As leaders in science and innovation, we are uniquely positioned to cultivate a climate of science and engineering that encourages women to dive into these traditionally male-dominated fields.” She points to Kirsten Lund-Jurgensen, who became the executive VP and president of Pfizer Global Supply. “Kirsten is the first woman to hold this position — it’s exciting.”
Though also seeing progress, Lori Lyons-Williams, chief commercial officer at Dermira, stresses the real facts in the slowly changing status quo: “Although recent estimates indicate that women currently make up about 50 percent of the talent pool in biopharma and hold more than half of the doctorates, only 18 percent of the highest-valued biotechnology companies have women in senior and C-suite management positions.” On the other hand, she too includes Walmsley’s appointment among the “meaningful wins” for industry women in 2017.
Yet Nawal Ouzren, CEO of Sensorion, points out an awkward, controversial, and all-too-typical fact in the Walmsley story: “She is paid 25 percent less than her predecessor, but I can’t imagine the GSK board lowering their performance expectations by 25 percent.” Still Ouzren recognizes big exceptions to the rule of men, such as Kate Bingham, managing partner, SV Life Sciences in London. “Not only is she one of the most influential women in European biotech, she has been engaged with the issue of diversity in biotech. She was one of the writers of the open letter against having women as ‘eye candy’ in professional biotech events, which got major media coverage.”
Sue Dillon, global therapeutic area head, immunology, Janssen, cites other “wins” for women, such as company leaders taking action against “gender discrimination and harmful gender stereotypes” and the push by Women In Bio and others to diversify company boards, where women are still “woefully underrepresented.” Dillon lists several women executives who have made significant strides: Samantha Du, Ph.D., chairwoman and CEO of ZAI Lab in China for building a China and global portfolio; Anna Protopapas, CEO of Mersana, who led a successful IPO in 2017; and Katrine Bosley, CEO of Editas, for pioneering gene editing. On the other hand, she says current lawsuits to fight gender discrimination, such as by Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones at the Salk Institute, unfortunately recall Dr. Nancy Hopkins’ seminal work in the 1990s, detailing discrimination against women at MIT. “It’s depressing to hear about similar issues in 2017.”
On the subject of recent setbacks, Lee Jones, CEO of Rebiotix, points to a discomforting example: the spectacular downfall of Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. “Her rise and fall has been mimicked many times by several men, but her story stood out for me because she was female. Unfortunately, it will stand as an example, probably until the end of time, of why not to invest in a woman- led company.” In contrast, when women move up in responsibilities, start companies, or accomplish great things, Jones sees noticeably less press coverage than for men when they do the same.
Part of the problem may be the disparity in numbers, leading many among the press and industry leaders to form a lazy habit of ignoring the achievements of women. “The big loss must be that there are still far too few female senior executives,” says Britt Meelby Jensen, CEO of Zealand Pharma. “The picture is slightly better when it comes to female representation at board level, but it remains critical to improve female representation at the executive level, as this is the food chain for future qualified board members.”
Adverum CEO Amber Salzman says her company “actively recruited top talent, and it happened to be that the most talented candidate for Chief Medical Officer was a woman — Athena Countouriotis.” The executive team is 80 percent female, creating “a top work environment that has already paid off.” A recent hire said he joined Adverum because of the work environment and leadership at the top. “We have a very collaborative environment, and the diversity of thought has enabled us to problem-solve difficult challenges.” Salzman is heartened by the rise of shareholder pressure on companies to diversify their boards: “There are some extremely talented women who could significantly enhance a board but are not yet on the radar as their male counterparts are.”
Confirming the disparity, Michael Rice of LifeSci Advisors, cites research published this year by Mass- Bio and LiftStream that documents the slow progress toward gender diversity in the industry. At the present rate, LiftStream predicts it will take the industry 40 years to reach parity at the board level. “That’s not nearly fast enough,” he says. “We still have a lot of work to do, and men need to be allies in this work. The more people we have aware of and actively engaged in making change on this issue, the faster we’re going to effect positive change in our industry.”
Faith Charles of Thompson Hine emphasizes the potential benefits of speeding up progress. “Creating and fostering a diverse and inclusive corporate culture strengthens any organization. Having women at the C-level, in the boardroom, or as outside counsel advising a company’s officers and board members adds a perspective that may not otherwise be present.” She commends leading companies, such as Biogen and J&J, for developing best practices in hiring and other areas affecting, and affected by, gender diversity.
A more international perspective comes from Karin Hamberg, who heads medical and regulatory at the Danish company Lundbeck. Despite the continuing imbalance and slow progress, she acknowledges, “Gender diversity is increasing in importance as a driver of the business, and many multinational companies are now investing billions of dollars in diversity initiatives.”
Seema Kumar, VP of innovation, global health, and policy communication at Johnson & Johnson, puts a bookend on this part of the discussion with signs of progress: “One win worth celebrating is that in 2017, the number of women CEOs running Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high. These 32 women mark the highest population of female CEOs in the 63-year history of the Fortune 500. That said, of course, we women executives would like to see the numbers climb up much higher. Our challenge for 2018 is to elevate women of all backgrounds and ethnicities into executive positions.”
WALLS OF ASYMMETRY
Is it the same world of opportunity for the men and women of biopharma? Our panelists answer with a unanimous and emphatic no, even if some of them have fortunately avoided the worst barriers for women in their own careers. One perception they all share is of the “unconscious bias” that works to perpetuate itself in an industry still mainly under male control. The relevant statistics show how real the control is. (See “Women Make Up ...” and “Gender Diversity ...” on page 21.) Here, the panel members deliver a dispassionate yet overpowering plea for the industry to pay conscious attention to the unconscious habits retarding progress for the women of biopharma.
What are some of the common obstacles women executives in the industry still face that men commonly do not?
Salzman succinctly states a shared observation: “I still see more unconscious biases and different assumptions being made about women than about men. It’s human nature for people to relate more to people who are ‘more like themselves’ and who have grown up with ‘similar’ experiences. Being a different gender makes you less similar.”
“Janssen and Johnson & Johnson have an inclusive culture, and I’ve not experienced obstacles during my tenure — in fact quite the opposite!” says Dillon. She observes, however, that all women in business have likely had the experience of being the sole female in business meetings or functions “where it was a struggle to truly have a seat at the table.”
Meelby Jensen elaborates: “Women often have to more consciously engage in a ‘relatable’ way and find styles of communication that reinforce their ability to be ‘heard’ by men to operate and deliver for their businesses.” She faults inadequate attention to recruitment and promotion of C-level women executives, reflecting a widespread but unconscious gender bias and the traditional camaraderie of men. “Overall, I think men are better at networking and promoting themselves and each other than women, and they are less reluctant to take risk. Some women could push themselves more to jump into unknown territory, be better at helping each other to succeed, while also getting into the game of networking.”
Enumerating the most typical challenges for women, Ouzren lists conflicts with raising a family, lack of available female candidates for very senior roles, data demonstrating that female CEOs have more challenges to raise money than their male peers, and a “Boy’s Club” corporate culture that sees no reason to support diversity and limits senior-leadership support, mentoring, and sponsorship of female executives.
Hamberg cites a specific family-related challenge, when women must take maternity leave or time off to attend to small children early in their careers — permanently lowering their salary levels and benefits. Although she sees no easy solutions, she considers practical ways the industry could approach the imbalance. In some Scandinavian countries, she notes, such leaves are granted only if the father joins the mother in the time away from work. “Generally, I believe people should be rewarded based on their business contribution, not based on seniority or ‘fairness’ principles,” she says.
“Women still report feeling more pressure to choose family versus advancing their careers compared to men and often don’t receive access to the supportive programs they may need to help them succeed,” says Lyons-Williams. Despite many women building careers in the life sciences industry, she notes there are still fewer women entering and graduating with science and technical degrees, compared to men. “When women do elect for a career in life sciences, two of the more common obstacles I’ve seen are related to compensation and career development. On average, women are paid less and lack the same career trajectory with regard to promotions and advancements as their male colleagues.” She is concerned the repeating cycle of lowered expectations may keep industry women in a permanent minority at the top levels. “Younger women often assume that if they don’t see women in leadership, the personal and professional obstacles will be too large for them to overcome.”
Seeing generally high regard for diversity and support for women at Pfizer and industrywide, Susman also recognizes persistent “unconscious biases” in the biopharma sector. “This is challenging to address because these are the unfounded stereotypes that people form outside of their own awareness,” she says. In business, she has witnessed male aspirants given the benefit of the doubt when presented with a promotion or increased responsibilities, yet women needing to prove themselves before, during, and after the offer has been extended. “We need to reach a time where an established, professional woman can walk into her corner office without feeling she has to validate her reason for being there.”
“We can blaze our own trails,” adds Kumar. “Although we have come quite far since the days where women had to act like men to be taken seriously, I believe that female executives still have a higher hurdle and find themselves working harder to prove their value.” Like the others, she points to “hidden, and sometimes unconscious, biases” facing women in the industry and showing the need for further progress.
Jones is unequivocal in her observations of continuing barriers for women in biopharma as a self-perpetuating problem. “It is difficult for women to gain professional recognition when they remain outside the long-established network for men,” she says. “I see lots of money being thrown at male executives who start their own companies or move to a startup company because someone else, generally another male, sees them as being smart. Women are held to a much higher standard.” Men, most often the ones hiring and recruiting, often cite lack of qualified women candidates. “What they mean is that they didn’t find them in their networks.”
“It all comes down to earning respect, being seen as having the same qualifications and skills as our male counterparts, and being given the same opportunities they receive,” says Charles. “We’re making progress here, too, but old ideas and old habits die hard; it takes time to overcome long-held beliefs and stereotypes.” She believes women could make much more use of mentors and sponsors. “Women often tend to be more passive and think that having education, exceptional talent, and proven experience will get them where they want to go, but as the old adage goes, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Rice has witnessed the barriers for women from a man’s perspective, and the experience has motivated him and his group to support Women In Bio’s Boardroom Ready program. “Many boards and leadership teams are looking for people with prior board experience — but this creates a cycle of keeping women off boards because, without being on a board, you can’t gain the experience required to be on one,” he says. He believes the male-dominated boards gravitate toward staying with the familiar status quo, rather than making positive efforts to bring in women and mentor them in the art and politics of board management.
Our panelists explore how the right actions taken now could accelerate the pace of change for the women of biopharma, by tackling the following question.
What should be the specific, immediate steps in furthering industry women’s progress in 2018?
Kumar opens this phase of the discussion appropriately — with a call to action: “Women, and particularly minority women, need to express their voice, and act as role models to pave the way for future generations of diverse leaders in the biopharma world,” she says. “Storytelling plays a tremendous role in furthering progress for women. Positive role models allow women to not only dream of being successful in the industry, but seeing that these achievements are possible.” As part of “doing her part,” Kumar has been publishing a Women in STEM LinkedIn series, highlighting the female heroes of STEM, both past and present.
A much larger group of women than represented here, who now run companies and organizations all over the industry, also have considerable power to move history forward for women. “In my company, I will continue to focus on building the best product and company I possibly can,” Makley says. “I hope that, in doing so, I also will help shift the entrenched pattern and make the path a bit easier for the next female founders who come along.”
Quite a number of our panelists also had firm views of what actions companies should take and what standards they should follow in changing the diversity scales. “Companies should take on measurable diversity goals from entry-level positions all the way up to their boards,” says Salzman. “That’s the only way to move past the unconscious biases that often take place.”
According to Lyons-Williams, only one woman currently serves on her company’s board, and Lyons-Williams is the only woman in the C-suite. She sees an opportunity for these numbers to improve over time, since more than 60 percent of her company’s employees, including seven VP-level functional leaders, are women. “There are talented women who are capable of rising to the ranks of the C-suite or board. It is our duty, as executive leaders, both men and women, to do more than mentor these individuals. We must actively identify development opportunities and pave career paths for these women.”
Jones adds more detail to the action agenda: “Every hiring manager in biopharma should be challenged to interview as many women as men for every job and should be encouraged to hire as many women as they do men for the jobs they have open. It may surprise people that qualified women are indeed available if one looks. The result of that will be to create a culture where people are valued for what they bring to the table, and the companies will be better able to serve their customers.”
Drilling down further, Ouzren would score the game: “I would start working on the metrics and set up targets to close the gaps, ASAP, in board representation, salary, and percent of diversity in the workforce. Every CEO should hold their direct reports accountable to close the gaps — and it should be part of year-end performance feedback and subsequent salary increase or equity payoff. One quick win is to make sure that you have a diverse pool of candidates for every single position and, in particular, very senior ones.” If industrywide progress still lags, Ouzren believes policymakers should take charge; Sweden mandates a 50/50 men/women representation on boards for private and public companies.
Hamberg’s faith in such efforts is limited: “Personally, while I acknowledge the value of general diversity, I am not a big fan of policies favoring more women in business. Long term, I believe the best way to achieve equality is to ensure women have the qualifications and support they need to be successful in the workforce. One key way to achieve greater equality of opportunity in the workplace is to provide free education as the Danish government does. Free access to higher education for everyone is critical to developing a strong talent pool and is an immensely important factor for securing diversity.” She believes more-immediate drivers of change would be increased adoption of flexible working conditions, talent development, and mentorship programs.
Merely hiring more women in the industry is not the answer, says Charles: “We must first understand the underlying causes to find solutions. We need to continuously analyze whether plans we put in place are working and whether our initiatives and organizations are making progress, not just form a committee so we can say we have one. Committees and initiatives charged with implementing changes to create and sustain diversity must be empowered and given the resources to actually make a difference. Above all, women need to have more confidence in themselves and take control of their careers. Enlist a sponsor, network, let people know you are looking for CEO or other C-suite jobs, and pursue your desires fearlessly.”
“Everyone needs to get involved in this issue if we’re really going to effect change across the industry and make it a more inclusive space. We need to keep having open, honest dialogues and really listen to women in the industry, and then we need to take action,” Rice says.
Building women’s presence on boards and in executive roles is essential, and progress is happening — but not fast enough, Dillon believes. Beyond the growing network of female executives, and male supporters, she sees promise in training and mentoring the next generation of women to unleash their potential and personal confidence early in their careers. “I’m optimistic that this tsunami of next-generation talent, connected with the growing cadre of established women leaders, will break barriers like we’ve never seen.”
“We have four strong female leaders on Pfizer’s executive team, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be one of them,” says Susman. “Based on my experience, I feel the paradigm shift for Pfizer is well underway — we’re excited about where we’re headed, and we’re going to continue this momentum forward through 2018 and beyond.”
Meelby Jensen seems to sum up a lot of our panel’s views in these few words: “Many mistake the issue of gender diversity as being for women alone. Both men and women are needed to enable change, and we need to look beyond gender bias to capture the very best leadership talent. I encourage women to go for the opportunity and also urge that they are given the opportunity to prove that they can do the job. I guarantee that we can!”