Magazine Article | January 22, 2010

Women In Biopharma: Analyzing The Glass Ceiling

Source: Life Science Leader

By Suzanne Elvidge, Life Science Leader magazine

Women make up approximately half of the world’s population, but have traditionally supplied a smaller proportion of the workforce. This has been changing over the years, and by October 2009, there was a breakthrough in women’s employment — according to a report by the Center for American Progress and Maria Shriver, women made up half of the U.S. workforce for the first time in history.

In the pharmaceutical and medical industry, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2005 Report, around half of the employees (48.8%) are women. This fact is reflected by Fortune’s 2007 “Top 100 companies to work for,” which included six pharmaceutical companies and breaks out employment by gender as:

  • Genentech – 50% women
  • Amgen – 46%
  • Genzyme – 55%
  • Alcon – 47%
  • AstraZeneca – 54%
  • Medtronic – 46%.

While many companies have achieved parity between the sexes at entry level, and even up to middle management, there are still more men than women at board level and in C-level posts. In Europe, according to figures from the Third Bi-annual EuropeanPWN (European Professional Women’s Network) BoardWomen Monitor 2008, looking at the boards of the top 300 European companies, three out of four of these include one or more women. However, only 9.7% of the board members were female, up from 8.5% in 2006 and 8% in 2004. Excluding Norway (where government legislation mandates that at least 40% of board members must be female), the average female board membership is 9.1%.

In 2007, the U.S.-based Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association announced results from the E.D.G.E. (Empowerment, Diversity, Growth, Excellence) in Leadership study of leading biotech and pharma companies. These found that women held just 17% of senior management positions and 34% of middle management positions in life sciences companies, and these figures hadn’t changed significantly in around five years.

“This is known as the ‘scissor phenomenon,’ where the numbers of men increase and women decrease at more senior levels,” says Diane Jorkasky, M.D., FACP, SVP, head of development and CMO at AILERON Therapeutics.

“The number of women in biopharma overall isn’t the issue; it’s more the number of women attaining the more important roles in a company. This is gradually changing, with women taking higher positions not only in the small firms but also in some of the larger ones. Of course, there is more to do to get a balance, especially in large pharma,” says Dominique Surun, M.D., MBA, CEO and board chairman at Aterovax.

“At Abingworth, we see management as being key to the success of companies, and we select our management teams for our portfolio companies based on talent — we wouldn’t limit our choices by gender. However, because women historically have been underrepresented in science, I suspect there is a time lag effect, with women currently being underrepresented in senior biopharma management,” says Sarah Shackelton, principal, marketing and management teams at Abingworth.

Where Have All The Women Gone?
What causes this fall in numbers? Women do tend to have more responsibilities outside work, especially where it relates to caring for children and older relatives. This can mean that they are more likely to drop out of the workforce or remain in lower status roles.

“I have never regretted being a woman in this industry, and I was thrilled to have children, but this does have an impact on your career. You have to be realistic about the amount of juggling required,” says Melanie Lee, Ph.D., FMedSci, who was executive VP of R&D at UCB until August 2009, and has now founded the consultancy Think 10. “At the higher executive levels, it is a tough and uncompromising world.”

“In my experience in Germany, many women do not continue working after they have children, or they prefer to take on positions with less responsibility,” says Nalân Utku, managing director at CellAct Pharma.

The Impact On The Industry
This significant underrepresentation at senior levels does not reflect the customer base (which in healthcare is often largely female) or the biopharma workforce. However, the biopharma industry is a very successful one — so does this really matter? Well, it seems that it does — that there is a financial and innovation imperative for companies to employ more women at senior levels.

According to a study published in 2004 by Catalyst, a U.S.-based research and advisory organization working to advance women in business, companies that have a higher proportion of women in senior posts financially outperform companies that have a smaller proportion of women in these posts. Looking at return on equity (ROE) and total return to shareholders (TRS) in companies remaining on the Fortune 500 list for four out of five years between 1996 and 2000, companies with the highest representation of women on their senior management teams had a 35% higher ROE and a 34% higher TRS than companies with the lowest women’s representation.

The results of a study published by the Centre for Women in Business at the London Business School (UK) in October 2007 showed that more innovation comes from teams with equal proportions of men and women than from teams with a significant majority of either sex, with these teams feeling psychologically “safer,” being more efficient, and being more likely to experiment. Members of teams with a slight majority of women (60%) are likely to have more self-confidence. The report concluded that the even mix works because any group in a minority will not contribute as fully — so having balanced teams is beneficial for both men and women.

By not having as many women as men on the boards, companies are losing access to significant skills. In the United States in the 2007-08 academic year, women received about two-thirds of the graduate certificates, 60% of the master’s degrees, and over 49% of the doctorates conferred in the United States, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.

“The industry needs to have leadership that reflects this talent pool,” says Abbie Celniker, Ph.D., CEO, Taligen Therapeutics. “It is all about the expertise and not the gender politics — if women are not making it to the top that means companies are missing out.”

As well as academic skills, having women in the top roles provides companies with access to a range of “soft” skills as well. “Women and men can bring different characteristics — for example, women who combine work with families tend to be well-organized, calm under fire, and capable of multitasking, in my experience,” says Nancy Stuart, BSc, MBA, COO at Concert Pharmaceuticals.

“Women tend to be able to deal with life’s obstacles well — building a career at the same time as raising a family. It’s important to emphasize that women work as hard as men, but often will bring a completely different perspective,” says Surun.
“Women can have different leadership skills from men. For example, they can be better in roles needing facilitation skills. Women can also thrive in matrix management roles, where some men may find the ambiguity of leadership harder to handle,” says Celniker.

Does Size Matter?
As discussed earlier, biotech companies seem to have been, to a degree, more successful at placing women at senior levels than the larger pharmaceutical companies. This seems to be part of a cultural difference relating to the types and sizes of companies.

“Women do seem to do better in smaller companies, perhaps because these lend themselves better to women’s skills, such as multitasking,” says Lee. “Bigger companies may select for women who emulate male behaviors, such as working long hours. Women who have to be able to juggle their lives because of other responsibilities can’t do this — the corporate culture is not traditionally friendly to working mothers.”

Surun says, “The smaller firms seem more open to having women in the top positions. Certainly there are a lot more women CEOs than there used to be. It seems that large pharma is still a ways behind, although even here the situation is getting better, especially in research and sales & marketing positions.”

Jorkasky adds, “In my experience in both big pharma and smaller companies, there do seem to be more women in C-level posts in small pharma and biotech companies compared with the bigger ones. Smaller companies seem to have more of a level playing field, focusing on performance and track record rather than relationships and networking. This is perhaps because these companies are operating under financial challenges, so they have more of a ‘do-or-die’ imperative.”

Celniker supports this. “I have seen dramatic differences in cultures between large pharma and biotech. In small biotech companies, people are selected externally for their expertise because of a need for the ‘best of the best’ in such a competitive environment — it’s less about the time in a given role and more about track record. There is also less of an established political hierarchy. In larger companies, there are more placements from within, relying more on an evolution through the company and internal networking, which seems to be harder for women.”

However, a number of the larger companies have recognized the importance of women within the senior levels of the hierarchy and have made changes to reinforce their roles — changes that have come from within as well as from outside. “Many companies, especially the larger ones, now do have incentives to recruit women and programs to support and mentor them,” says Celniker.

GlaxoSmithKline is one large pharma company that does have women in some top roles. According to Shelagh Wilson, Ph.D., VP, and head of European CEEDD (Center of Excellence for External Drug Discovery) at GSK, “While there aren’t equal numbers of men and women in the very senior executive posts at GSK, this is improving, and we do have women at the highest levels, for example, Deirdre Connelly, president, North American Pharmaceuticals; Yvonne Greenstreet, chief of strategy for R&D; and Ellen Strahlman, GSK’s chief medical officer. This hasn’t been conscious positive discrimination, but has been through having a culture of diversification and through recruiting the best person for the job.”

Sally Susman, BA, senior VP and chief communications officer at Pfizer, notes, “At Pfizer, we operate in many countries around the world, and as a result, we have taken steps to have our internal organization be more reflective of the diverse cultures and audiences we reach.”

Changing Times
To finish the work that has already started, changes need to take place to facilitate women’s moves into senior leadership roles. Some of the changes are at the government level. Changes in Norway have mandated more representation of women on company boards. Similarly, the French government is saying there should be more women on the boards of big companies, according to Maryvonne Hiance, cofounder and chair of TcL Pharma. “This is an important move, for if we wait for the change to just happen, it will take a long time,” Hiance says.

“In Germany, the situation will only change if women can access public childcare for younger children and get financial support,” says Utku. “Currently in most areas of Germany, children enter kindergarten at 3 years old, and many women stay at home until then. It will take time — according to a study in Berlin, there are more than 60% women in medicine, but less than 3% are in leading university positions. So it is not only the biopharma industry.”

Changes also need to take place at an organizational level. In larger organizations that tend to promote from within the ranks, one of the difficulties is getting to know people at the next level, because, as discussed earlier, networking out of work hours can be more difficult for women with young children or other dependents.

Companies need to consider the issues this raises, perhaps by considering the possibility of a woman who is a less well-known entity, rather than the man with equal qualifications, who they know better because of his networks. They can also facilitate networking, for example, avoiding events that are male-oriented and creating opportunities for women to network within the working day.

“The industry needs to track the trends within the workforce. It’s more than just quotas — companies need to look at their hiring decisions and understand how these choices are made, for example, not being influenced by subconscious preferences. Our leaders need to get out of their comfort zones and take risks,” says Celniker.

Finally, some changes need to happen on a personal level. “Managers and colleagues need to change attitudes, for example, not setting up meetings after normal working hours and accepting the needs for flexible hours and working from home,” says Surun.

“Women also need to change; they need to recognize that they may have to work harder to get the exposure and seek out opportunities rather than just waiting for them. They also do need to be aware of the disparity and manage their careers if they want to reach the senior levels,” says Jorkasky.

“Women need to recognize opportunities and see the challenges as a means to distinguish their career, their company, and their industry,” says Susman.

The Place Of The Mentor
Just by being in an executive position, women can be role models — but they also can actively support and mentor the women within their organizations, providing an important role in career development for women.

“Mentoring is very important, and not only female mentors but also male mentors who understand the differences in skills and styles between the sexes,” says Celniker.

Stuart supports this. “My mentor, who happened to be male, took an interest in me and helped me lay out my career path. I hope that I am carrying this on with my reports, with women at work, and at my alma mater. It’s exciting to watch these women develop and grow in confidence.”

“Senior-level women can make connections and advise about ways around hurdles,” says Celniker. “By creating an internal network, they can also help reduce the attrition rate of women in the industry and help set an example so that women feel confident going forward for promotions.”

The Last Word
It’s vitally important to create a culture of respect for both men and women, where both can move up the organization based on their skills, not their gender. “Overall, the industry needs to change, in order to more closely mirror the communities in which it operates, but women must realize they need to take a strong role in changing it,” says Susman. “They need to be mentors, to encourage, be open, be available, in effect, be good leaders.”

“Women, especially younger women, have changed organizations and changed perceptions by proving that they can take the responsibility and still have families and lives outside work,” says Stuart.

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