The relative absence of women from significant leadership roles in the biotech industry has rightfully become a front-and-center topic, in part prompted by a wave of coverage on the subject (here, here, here, here). Liftstream’s recent report, titled “Diversifying the outlook : The X&Y of biotechnology leadership”, is particularly compelling in its review of the issue, the underlying data, and what can be done about it.
Adding to this, in an excellent and data-rich “From The Trenches” blog post this morning, Nimbus Therapeutics’ CSO, Rosana Kapeller, asks the important question of “Where are the women?” in biotech today. Over the past few weeks since she and I connected on the topic, it’s prompted a lot of thinking and triggered some self-reflection.
The bottom line of her blog, and other recent reports, is this: women make up 50% of the talent pool (here) in the overall biomedical workforce, including slightly more than half of all doctorates, but are woefully under-represented in leadership roles in our industry and that’s unacceptable.
Before pointing abstractly at others about this problem, I took a look at the Atlas portfolio – and I’ll admit that I am surprised and disappointed to see such a small percentage of female leaders in “CxO” roles. We have only one female CEO right now in a portfolio of two-dozen companies, and only one female CSO (Rosana). The ranks of female CFO/CBO roles in our portfolio are much more common, representing more than a quarter of our companies. But these stats are still shocking low. Especially when back in 2010, three of the four women leaders honored by WEST here in Boston were current or former Atlas CEOs. So the lack of women in our current portfolio gives me pause, and made me reflect on why.
Subconscious cognitive bias in how aspiring women professionals are viewed, by both men and women hiring decision-makers, is a big part of the issue. They are at a disadvantage because of misperceptions around behavioral attributes, like mistaking aggressive assertiveness as a marker of competency. Stereotypical “female” traits like being less vocal about their opinions, more deferential in meetings, more empathetic and sensitive to other people’s needs, and more team-oriented vs individually focused – all play into this subconscious bias. Rosana’s blog covers this topic very well.
Fundamentally, this bias affects the way both men and women view female leadership candidates, and certainly plays a significant role in the lack of female C-level leaders. It also clearly affects how women scientists are viewed in academia as well, covered extensively by others (an example, here), where getting funding and professorships show significant gender inequality.
Further, these social cognitive biases reinforce the practice of “like hires like” in unintentional ways, as Rosana notes. Common questions we ask in recruiting – like the “Elevator Test” or “Airport Test”, essentially asking who would you like to be stuck with on work travel – are almost certainly self-fulfilling. Hiring more people who look and think like you because it’s easy and what we know. Grabbing a drink after work with folks that have similar “likes” reinforces the “boys club” in many fields, biotech is no exception. However, “like hires like” also can play the other way with positive effects: with more female leaders in a company, you’re able to attract more women who want to work in a more welcoming environment. A great example is Dimension Therapeutics, where CEO Annalisa Jenkins has a predominantly female leadership team (here). Rosana’s data on women founders and the percentage of women on their leadership teams reinforces this point.
The cognitive bias is also found in startup funding circles: stereotypically masculine traits are frequently sought after in entrepreneurs, and in executives for that matter. Lakshimi Balachandra at Babson has studied the subject, and, like many others, has shown that regardless of gender, masculine features outperformed effeminate ones in leading fundraising efforts and pitching new ideas. Here’s the paragraph from an Atlantic piece titled “The Sexism of Startup Land” that captures it:
“Balachandra examined how venture capitalists reacted to one-minute pitches from male and female startup founders in various industries. The main factor that determined whether the entrepreneurs were successful, she found, was how stereotypically “masculine” they behaved. The entrepreneurs—male and female—who were confident, stern, strong, and bold were much more likely to win funding for their ventures. The ones who were more stereotypically female, which to Balachandra’s team meant they acted happier, kinder, and more excited, tended to lose. Importantly, there was no gender gap: The manly women performed better than the effeminate men did.
We need to figure out how to better embrace and integrate a broader set of traits in the startup biotech landscape, as Rosana clearly describes in her blog. Only highlighting successful women who act like men doesn’t feel like the right solution.
Related to this stereotypies, there’s a (mis)perception that women don’t have the same risk tolerance as men; in a risk-embracing culture such as startup biotech, this perception may affect how candidates are viewed. It also creates a social bias for who might raise their hand to jump into a risky startup. Throwing away a cushy Big BioPharma job, with the more flexible working arrangements that big companies often offer, in exchange for a high-risk, all-in endeavor when you have a family at home requires thoughtful risk-calculus and consideration. Men and women often answer that assessment differently depending on the support they have at home.
But although this “women-don’t-take-risks” perception may have its roots in some settings (and may be reinforced by evolutionary biology), in the managerial context this socially-constructed myth is just that – a myth – and has been debunked before (here). A recent Kauffman study also shows how female entrepreneurs are frequently “smart” risk-takers (here), exactly what we want in entrepreneurs and biotech executives. What is clear, however, is that female leaders’ risk-taking is more often “invisible”, frequently because of a subconscious aversion to assert themselves for credit and a lack of self-promotion. Celebrating great women leaders in high-risk, high-return settings like biotech is part of breaking this log-jam; here’s Scott Kirsner’s superb Boston Globe piece on the ten most influential women in Massachuesetts biotech. There are hundreds of great women beyond those distinguished ten. We need more of this to bring visibility to the topic.
Lastly, it’s worth briefly commenting on the observation of highly educated women “opting-out” (here, here). Recent research from Vanderbuilt highlighted that “married mothers who are graduates of elite colleges have lower labor market activity than their counterparts from less-selective institutions” (here, and in the Boston Globe here). In their analysis, more than 50% of married women with kids under 18 years old that have degrees from “elite” Tier 1 academic institutions chose to stay-at-home. My family is one of the beneficiaries of this: my highly educated wife has chosen to opt-out and stay-at-home with our three kids. Not an easy choice, as she’s constantly torn between wanting to work professionally and wanting to stay at home. But as a society we need to figure out how to keep our most talented potential contributors engaged more broadly, as many who have opted-out feel forced to make that decision – which probably means more flexible work and childcare environments. Further, better approaches to “on-ramping” those who opted-out previously but are keen to return to work are needed (here).
But even assuming more women than men choose to stay at home and raise kids during the important career-advancing decades of their 30s and 40s, the reality remains that the ratio of men to women in senior biotech roles should not be as skewed as it is today; as Rosana’s blog affirms, it’s like 5-to-1 or worse today across most leadership positions. This leaves a large portion of the available talent pool untapped. It’s a simple fact that we need to fix.
So what can and should we do about this in biotech?
We can’t fix the system overnight, but we can push in our own organizations and, for those of us in venture-backed biotech, we can push with our portfolio company boards and leadership teams. I don’t have a silver bullet solution, but we can work on three things.
First, an important step in confronting cognitive biases is acknowledging the issue head-on and bringing it to the fore; raising this topic and holding our recruiting processes to a higher standard is an obvious one. Testing a “search” committee’s premises on how candidate profiles are being judging and making sure that the best candidate gets picked – not the best male or best female candidate. Challenging the assumptions around the questions of “is she a fit” and “can she scale”, as Rosana points out, is critical. Truly dissecting the contributions of male and female contributors to past outcomes in referencing is also important.
Second, we need to actively challenge the “List” in recruiting. Every time rosters of possible candidates get identified, we should push to have more diversity in the mix at the outset. It’s not been that way in most searches I’ve seen; in fact, out of nearly 120 individuals on a “Contact List” (as sources or prospects) for a recent CEO search, only 14% were women. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t take note of the lack of females on the list at the time – but I’ll notice it going forward. Unless we get more women’s names on these lists for C-level positions and board roles, hiring will continue to reflect the skewed underlying pool of candidates.
Third, once recruited, we need better mentorship and career development in biotech to help women grow into future roles, as Rosana notes. Organizations like WEST and others are doing this – but both men and women need to push this agenda. Biogen has been making a big push on this front, even connecting some of their star female executives to venture firms like Atlas to find external board roles for them (here). Trying to find and actively cultivate the right connections for emerging female leaders is critical.
To close out on this important topic – accessing talent is the #1 issue in biotech today, across both leadership teams and boardrooms (here). We have huge demands for experienced R&D, general management, and capital markets savvy candidates. As a sector, we need to focus on improving how we recruit, retain, and engage women leaders if we are to successfully address these talent demands, and any company that can figure how to capitalize on this will have a huge competitive advantage versus those that fail to address it.
Thanks to Rosana for inspiring me to think more actively about this important topic.