By Mia Landeck
In “Why and How to Close the Gender Gap in the Life Sciences” (see September 2018 issue), leadership statistics from MassBio and executive recruiting firm Liftstream indicated that women account for just 24 percent of C-suite positions and about 14 percent of board-level positions within the industry in 2018.
This is despite both genders entering the life sciences in equal proportions. Additionally, according to research published by PNAS on Feb. 18, 2020, there lies a 27 percent gender gap in productivity between men and women scientists who are published during their careers. This is accompanied by a 19.5 percent higher risk in women leaving academia — a rate which persists throughout scientific careers not limited to junior researchers. Why is this? What’s the cause? And is the common denominator internalized bias?
These tough questions can lead to tougher conversations. To facilitate a safe space to have them, life science women from across the nation met at Florida’s Tampa Convention Center in February 2020. These professionals, who come from a variety of life science functional areas (e.g., C-suite, HR, legal, science, manufacturing, IT, pharmacy, finance), engaged in active discussion on the state of the industry. This included, but was not limited to, the emergence of new technology, intersectionality, low pay, access to mentors, the aforementioned struggle for complete parity, and individual paths to success.
Welcomed by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and cofounder Patti Rossman, these women set the stage for Tampa’s annual Life Science Women’s Conference — an event dedicated to exploring issues that women in the life sciences face — with their challenges, expertise, and passion.
STRUGGLING WITH WORKPLACE DYNAMICS
Many of the unique hurdles women face lie in bias within the workplace. Women, who may already lack effective mentors due to affinity bias, suffer from stereotypically gendered values, behavioral styles, and norms perpetuated in their work environments.
Bias experts Andie Kramer & Al Harris, authors of Breaking Through Bias and It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace, explored this in their presentation “Gender Bias in the Workplace.” “Behaviors supposedly linked to unique female characteristics are really caused by the situations in which women are placed,” they shared. “Behavior depends on what we’re asked to do, the conditions under which we do them, and the expectations of how we will perform them.” Workplaces that encourage women to “not be like” other women, forcing them to struggle for limited leadership positions, are born from — and inform — the existing gender gap.
“Often, work experiences impact the decision to leave,” shared Leigh Holcomb, executive recruiter for Connexis Search Group and career transition coach, “including a feeling of isolation, hostile work environments, and a lack of supportive sponsors.”
So what’s the key in changing this landscape? Telling people not to be biased won’t help. Kramer and Harris suggest that “stereotypes and the biases that flow from them must be attacked directly.” Different stereotypes follow different identities, and the key in challenging them comes from active self-awareness and inclusion. For those who aren’t sure how well they navigate gender bias in their workplaces, but aren’t sure where to start investigating, Kramer and Harris have compiled an assessment in pursuit of this (see andieandal.com/the-assessment).
Additionally, Holcomb recommended that women in the life sciences create a “stop-doing” list, outlining boundaries in order to avoid being taken advantage of. “Stop saying, ‘I’ll take anything,’” she suggests. “Stop underestimating your worth, wasting your time with ineffective strategies, and ignoring the resources available.” Most important, she emphasized, is the necessity in asking for help. Women must look to each other for support. This is a sentiment that was echoed by many professional speakers at the conference, especially as discussion shifted to finding solutions through open sessions and the Funding & Investment forum.
ON CAREER DYNAMICS, FUNDING, AND INVESTMENT
Armed with the stories and expertise shared during their presentations, attendees gathered in open sessions to discuss their own hardships and devise solutions. These rooms included discussion in safeguarding intellectual property, necessary certifications, finding mentors, seizing marketing opportunities, and suggestions for men who want to help. The discussions were engaging and bustling, dedicated to self-improvement and mentorship. The life sciences industry is growing at an accelerated rate, and helping each other plays a key role in reducing the exponential increase of disparity alongside it.
Among these sessions was the Funding and Investment Forum, which invited women to explore the state of the industry from an entrepreneur’s and investor’s eyes, building on a reality that was explored in an earlier presentation (“Update on the Opioid Epidemic and the Fight to Win”) by Dr. Jerrica Dodd: oversaturation. “The market for pharmacists right now is really saturated because you have about 300,000 pharmacists in the United States,” she explained. “My understanding is that there are about 144 pharmacy schools in the country — and I promise, when I graduated 22 years ago, there were not 144 pharmacy schools, and they were not pumping out pharmacists at the rate of 14,000 to 15,000 per year.”
Other women chimed in with similar sentiments, mentioning a large gender gap with intense competition. How might this affect finding needed capital? Consider that on Forbes’ data-driven Midas List, only 12 of 100 leading tech venture investors are women (one who specializes in life science companies). Furthermore, Rock Health (a venture fund focused on digital health) reports that the number of women CEOs of funded digital health tech startups, as well as the percent of women VC partners, is approximately 10 percent. Attendees confirmed that there is an incredible barrier between women and private funding. And women entrepreneurs who look toward subsidized funding may find they still need a private investor.
“For anyone here who is an investor or will be seeking investment, the Bridge is a follow-on award after a Phase 2. To be competitive for this, you must have a private investor that’s going to match the government one to one,” shared Kory Hallett at the Funding & Investment Forum. Hallett is a program director in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Development Center at the National Cancer Institute and program officer to SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants.
Challenges in finding funding, shared by both attendees and speakers, suggest a need for greater representation in venture funding markets. This is especially apparent for women entrepreneurs in the life sciences, whose high-impact and potential for change is inundated by investors failing to adequately capitalize on them.
This is a barrier, but like all the barriers discussed at the conference, not an insurmountable one. Many paths are nonlinear, like Associate Director of Regulatory Affairs at Sterilmed Jan Flégeau’s, who began in translations, or President of AxoGen Karen Zaderej’s, who began in manufacturing and marketing. Perhaps the most valuable step we can take in changing the landscape is connecting. “In tough times, rely on those who can truly help you,” suggests Eva Dias, CEO of Phoenix Human Capital Solutions. “And follow your dreams.”
Some of the presentations at The Life Science Women’s Conference 2020 included: “Inspiration from Wonder Women: Finding the Innovator in YOU,” “Update on Peripheral Nerve Technology,” “Update on Immuno-On-cology,” “Adventures in Anhydrous,” “Negotiation for Women,” “Global Life Science Perspective,” “Networking Game Plan for Future Success,” “Update your Career with Project Management,” and “New Regulations for Body Art and Inks.”
MIA LANDECK is the communications director for Life Science Women’s Conferences.