Biotech Circa 2015 AD: Where Are The Women?

Posted September 28th, 2015 by Rosana Kapeller, in Bioentrepreneurship, From The Trenches, Talent

This blog was written by Rosana Kapeller, CSO of Nimbus Therapeutics, as part of the “From the Trenches” feature of LifeSciVC.

A few weeks ago, a member of our board sent an email to a group of biotech CSOs suggesting that we gather periodically to share new insights and get more connected with the community. I thought it was a fantastic idea that could turn into a productive and valuable meeting. Before drafting an email offering to organize it (I am a good girl, my mother taught me well) I looked on the “to” line and, to my surprise, I was the only woman out of 12 CSOs. That made me reconsider sending out my enthusiastic response for this gathering, not because I did not think it was important, but because I did not want to set the precedent, as the only woman in the group, to be the first one to respond and offer to organize it.

This episode led me to think about women in leadership roles in biotech. As I started doing research on this topic a timely article appeared in Nature Biotechnology: “Old Boy Biotech” that depicts the dismal state of affairs. Here are some of the metrics disclosed by the article:

  • In Pharma women hold only 16% of the senior management positions
  • In the top 10 highest-valued Biotech companies, it is slightly better, at a whopping 17.9%
  • In the 10 companies that raised the most money through IPO this number climbs to 18.6%, only to decline again to 17% for the top 10 companies that raised the most VC money in 2014.
  • If you look at the boards of directors and SABs of these companies, the number of women plummet below 10%

These numbers are quite similar to the ones published by Liftstream in their excellent and comprehensive 2014 report “Diversifying the outlook: The X&Y of biotechnology leadership”. In this report they surveyed 1,491 small, medium and large biotech companies in Europe and the US. Not surprisingly, women comprised 9.7% and 20.9% of the Board of Directors and Leadership team positions in the small and medium biotech US companies, respectively. Interestingly, the number climbed to 19.2% in the Boards of Directors of big Biotech companies, but decreased to 13.9% in the leadership team of those same companies.

As I can’t deny the scientist in me, I decided to do my own, limited research and generate my own data. For this analysis, I picked the companies that have been awarded the highly competitive Fierce 15 over the past two years (2013 and 2014).  The rationale is that they represent a slice of the best, most innovative small Biotech companies and therefore should reflect the most recent trends in gender diversity. From these 31 companies 10 are now public, with 6 in the 2014 cohort and 4 in the 2013. This is what I found:

  • There are a total of 177 board seats, 14 of them occupied by women, corresponding to 8% of all positions.
  • The Leadership teams of these companies vary a lot, from 4 to 17 people and sometimes, in small companies, the whole team is listed. Therefore, I added everyone who was on the website of the different companies and then looked specifically into 6 roles or equivalent: CEO, CSO, CBO, COO, CFO and CMO.
  • In total, 220 individuals were listed in the leadership teams of the 29 companies, with 57 of these positions occupied by women, corresponding to 26% of the total pool. There is a trend up from 2013 to 2014 (21% to 29%), which could become significant if the trend continues in 2015 and beyond.
  • This 2-year snapshot includes only 3 women CEOs (10%), all from the 2014 cohort. They are Katrine Bosley from Editas Medicine, Annalisa Jenkins from Dimension Therapeutics and Laura Shawver from Cleave Biosciences.


  • Among the other key management positions the numbers averaged around 5 (17%), with female CMOs slightly above female CSOs, 24% vs. 17% (chart below).


  • The most important finding is that companies with women founders in leadership positions have more women in their Boards of Directors and Leadership Teams, 16% and 44%, respectively, whereas the reciprocal is true in companies without women founders were the numbers drop to 4% and 15%, respectively (chart below).



These numbers all tell the same story: independent of the size of company, geography, or science focus there are not enough women in leadership positions. What are the reasons for this gender disparity? Many articles have been written on the subject (here, here, here), and the three most common cited reasons are: (1) lack of women in the talent pool; (2) women are less likely to be asked to join a board; and (3) when asked to join, women are more likely to decline the invitation.

“Not enough women in the talent pool”

Is that really true or is that an “urban myth”?   Some studies claim that women drop off early in their careers to have children and decide not to return to their jobs. This may be true in many cases and be a contributing factor; however, women who have worked hard to obtain a PhD/MD/MBA are less likely to drop off. What studies have found, for this highly skilled population, is that at the pre C-suite level the gender disparity is virtually non-existent. However, it is true that women are less likely to throw their “hat in the ring” or elbow their way through to a high-powered position. In addition, women are less skilled in the art of “fake it until you make it” and most feel that they need to have all the skills and experiences required for the job before stepping into it whereas men usually have a more forward attitude: get the job first and then learn the skills.

Most of you may be familiar with Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In, Women, Work and The Will To Lead” where she expands on the work of others to say that it is not just the glass ceiling that stops women, but that women need to “lean in” and not stop themselves short because they don’t think they have what it takes to make it or because they don’t think they can do it all (career and family). In her book, Sandberg promotes the idea that women need to lead the change to promote a more egalitarian work environment that caters to needs associated with kids and homemaking and create a more balanced approach that would attract women without detracting from productivity.

However, what does not change, in what Sandberg proposes, is a change in work norms. “Leaning in” embraces the idea that for women to make it they need to play the game like men, as proposed in an earlier book by Gail Evans “Play Like a Man and Win Like a Woman”. According to Evans “ It’s a game where winning is the obvious (and only) objective and where aggression, self-promotion, a tough skin, and an effective display of power are the signs of a winner”. Therefore, to play the game women need to “toot their own horn”, “be assertive”, and get a “seat at the table” (a good advice). I believe this pervasive idea, of the need for a testosterone-laced behavior, leads to the comment that I hear all the time: Women don’t scale and therefore can’t be placed in leadership roles.

Who says so? Who determines the leadership skills that are required in the biotech business? This is where I would like to challenge the community to think in a different way: Why do women have to play the game like men play? We are not men. And if we behave like men then we fall into other stereotypes: A man is driven, a woman is a b—-. A man is passionate, a woman is emotional. A man clears the conference room table and he is helpful, a woman does it and she is considered subservient, and so on.

What we bring into the work force is unique and valuable and that has been demonstrated time and time again in many different corporations and government institutions (here, here). Women are more collaborative, intuitive and by nature enjoy team work. We may be less aggressive and a bit more emotional but these qualities should be seen as a plus not a negative since this is part of women’s creative makeup.

Both male and female qualities are important and synergize with each other in the work environment. Therefore, I believe that if women’s qualities were embraced, instead of diminished in the work environment, we would find that the gender disparity in the talent pool would de facto disappear.

“Women are less likely to be asked to join a Board”

The numbers tell it all. Only 16% of women vs. 59.4% of their male counterparts in the C-suite are asked to join a Board of Directors. That goes back to “like hires like” mentioned above. Since most of the VC network is comprised of men (less than 10% of traditional VCs are women) and most CEOs are men (90%), in small biotech companies the tendency is to call “who you know” before starting a search. That perpetuates the problem and if this cycle is not broken, then what?

The hope is that women in founder/leadership positions will start hiring from their networks and that will slowly erode the gender gap. But is there a more structured way to do this? Companies like Google have been using a more structured, unbiased process to hire new leaders where the decision to hire or promote is only based on the required qualities and not unduly influenced by personal bias (here).

A similar approach should be applied in biotech hiring practices to increase diversity in the C-suite and boards. In addition, women need to help themselves by increasing their visibility and networking. The formal ways to do that are obvious- attend more events, speaking engagements, etc. But there are subtle ways that are not so obvious and hard for women to practice, one example being weekend soccer game where guys get together informally. That will not change, but maybe increased awareness of these inequalities may help both men and women to reach out pro-actively across the aisle and increase communication.

“ When asked to join the C-suite or Board, women are more likely to decline the invitation”

In venture-backed biotech this is a topic that always comes up. The general assumption is that women are risk averse and by definition small biotech is a risky business. But, is it true that women are really risk averse? I do not think this is a gender issue. I think that to take the financial and emotional risk of joining a venture-backed biotech, you need other portions of your life to be stable.

Most men have supportive partners at home and/or other help. That allows them to focus on the work at hand. I think the reason women are perceived as risk averse is because, in the majority of the cases, they are playing the supportive role. Here is where I do agree with Sheryl Sandberg. If women were free or freed themselves from this supportive role, they would be able to take more risks. I would urge women not to shy away from risk, just get help and, whether from a partner/family or hired. There is no shame in it and your family/kids will thrive.

The other reason for women to decline the invitation to join the C-suite or a board is that women always feel that they are already “150% committed” to their current roles. That may be true, but we need to become better in setting boundaries. We need to make a board position a priority as we will not get any brownie points for being martyrs. Another reason, that is seldom mentioned, is that women may not want to step into these positions because they are not interested in dealing with the people and attitudes that are common in the C-suite and board rooms. There is way too much bravado, chest beating and judgment going around. Women who are not interested in playing this game may just flatly refuse to be part of it.

In conclusion:

This is a controversial topic and there is no right or wrong. What we need is a frank dialogue at the decision making level to change the ratio.  We should stop and ask, how do women like to play the game? Or even better, let a group comprised equally of men and women come up with a different set of rules.

What is quite obvious is that ‘like hires like’. As mentioned above, companies with women founders have higher numbers of women both on their boards and management teams. Therefore, qualified women do exist. They just need to be given the opportunity to show what they can do.

A male colleague contributed the following advice: “Women should not shy away from giving feedback to men on a man’s (many times unintentional) actions and comments that reinforce negative gender stereotypes, and not apologize when doing so! If the guy can’t handle it, tell him to a ‘grow a pair!’ Us guys need that feedback, we are not perfect by any stretch, and societal norms impact us, just as those ‘good-girl’ stereotypes that your mothers taught impact women. Getting the most out of all our talent, at every level, regardless of gender, requires everyone to participate.”

I already see quite a bit of change. The younger generation does not have the same biases and are less gender conscious than prior generations. They work more collaboratively and hire the best people for the job, regardless of gender. Hopefully, when our daughters are in the workforce we will look back at this topic as we look back at the Suffragettes with admiration but also disbelief that there was a time women could not vote in the US.  It looks so distant… unreal.


Rosana Kapeller

CSO of Nimbus
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