Two’s Company, Three’s Diversity

Posted February 12th, 2018 by Ros Deegan, in From The Trenches

This blog was written by Ros Deegan, CBO of Bicycle Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

Two years ago, Bloomberg Business published a feature entitled At Biotech Party, Gender Diversity Means Cocktail Waitresses. Within three weeks of publication, more than 200 individuals had signed a letter urging the biotech industry to stop hiring models at business cocktail parties. I appreciate that signing this letter wasn’t a direct commitment to improve gender diversity. But I thought it would be an interesting exercise to assess each of the signatories’ companies against a higher gender diversity metric to see if this talk translated into action.

Let’s be clear from the start that my methodology is flawed (I stepped out of the rigors of science and into the pliability of business early in my career). I focused on biotech companies where a quick internet search would reveal a list of leadership team members and board members. I ignored large pharma companies, services firms and investors. Plus, I dropped the biotech that no longer exist (some for good, some for bad) and any double counting. This took me from the original 200-plus signatories to a more manageable list of 63 companies.

Going into the analysis, I had my own bias regarding what ‘good’ looks like. Good for me is at least three women in leadership and a minimum of three women on the board. I know that this might appear aspirational but 3+3 creates both a quorum and an environment in which both genders can influence outcomes. This is very different to the ‘lone woman’ scenario, which requires breaking an established dynamic of single gender social norms. 3+3 would not put women at 50% (except in a very small company) but it’s a great near-term goal. The Massachusetts’ state legislature is on my side, passing a 2015 resolution calling for companies with boards of nine or more directors to include at least three women by 2018.

For smaller boards and leadership teams, two women may be a more realistic target and the Massachusetts’ state legislature recommends at least two women for smaller boards. I recognize that some companies list very few leadership team members on their website or have very small boards, but it is the names on your website that help to brand your company. And if you don’t have any women listed, that says something. Maybe not to you, but to the investors, collaborators, future employees and patients that visit your website.

And so, to the results. At the time of writing, only two companies do not list any women on their respective websites, either in leadership positions or on the board: Xencor and Presage. Xencor listed 11 men across both roles, whilst Presage listed seven. The positive here is that these are relatively small totals when compared to many of the other companies so perhaps there are women in senior positions within each company who do not appear on the website. I was not surprised to find a couple of 0+0 companies. But I am disappointed.

The letter that individuals from these companies signed two years ago includes a sentence that: ‘…actions, and the attitudes they betray, influence our decisions about whether to join a company, leave a company, work with a company and invest in a company.’ If you have no women showcased on your website, then you probably aren’t going to attract many talented women to your company. You may think that you are simply selecting the best person for each role, but in truth, you aren’t seeing the best people. In a recent analysis conducted by Liftstream and Mass Bio, 46% of women stated that they would reject an employer because of an ‘all-male board, all-male management, and because they were interviewed only by men’.

What actions can companies take to improve the dynamic? A quick improvement would be to look at your broader leadership team and think about giving a bigger team presence on your website. This may seem like a smoke and mirrors fix but this simple step might encourage more women to apply for your next executive position, thereby giving you a bigger pool of appropriately experienced and qualified candidates and increasing the probability that a woman is the best person for the role.

If you aspire to greater action, you could follow the lead shown by some companies and ask your recruitment firm to begin its next search with a list of women only candidates. If no applicant reaches the required standard, broaden the search. For many people, forcing the issue in this way feels uncomfortable and biased. The objective, however, is not to recruit a woman for the sake of gender but rather to balance existing biases which often leverage male dominated networks to find new hires. No talented and experienced female leader wants to take on a role simply because she is a woman. Women do, however, want to be included in the candidate pool. To that end, LifeSci Advisors currently has a network of more than 800 vetted female board candidates as part of their Board Placement Initiative. Can you really claim that there aren’t any appropriate female candidates if you haven’t at least looked at this resource?

At the positive end of my analysis, I highlight Alkermes, Mersana, Tesaro and Vertex who all met my 3+3 benchmark. Relaxing the standard to two when the denominator was less than nine, I add in Agios, Antiva, Catabasis, Geron, Lycera, Oncomed, Relypsa and my former company, Trevena. The average leadership team representation stands at two women and board representation hovers around one. The 3+3 companies alone represent only six percent of the total companies assessed but reducing the benchmark to two when the denominator is less than nine gets us to 19%. One action that we could commit to as an industry is acknowledging these companies that are getting it right. Maybe an industry-wide certification for biotech companies that meet these diversity targets? Something along the lines of ‘best places to work’ with a clear path to achieve the objective.

In 2017, Morgan Stanley conducted a comprehensive analysis of 1,600 global stocks and found that gender diverse companies offer slightly better returns, with lower volatility. This data is supported by many other analyses both in terms of financial performance and non-financial metrics. In a data-driven industry, we need to take note of the numbers and move from signing letters to signing employee contracts. In addition to the approaches suggested above, here are additional actions for your consideration.

Engage with existing initiatives: LifeSci Advisors, Theravance, Acorda, Skadden, Thomson Hine, The Stevenson’s Group and Biogen sponsor Women In Bio’s Boardroom Ready program, a five-day course that prepares executive women for their first board role. I was privileged to be selected for the class of 2017 and it was an excellent experience. Have you thought about recommending senior level women in your organization for this program? Would your organization consider co-sponsoring the initiative? Might you use this initiative as a resource for your next board search? 

Set up an internal development program: A 2016 EY report revealed that only 20% of life sciences companies have formal programs to identify and develop women’s careers in leadership. Perhaps this is something that you could add to your organization? You could consider the full range of diversity and inclusion services offered by a company such as Liftsteam, an executive search and advisory firm. Or get started simply by encouraging your high-flying female colleagues to apply for non-executive director positions and referring them when you hear about board positions.

Focus on the middle: A McKinsey analysis shows that healthcare and pharmaceutical companies start with more women in their pipeline than many other sectors – 59% versus 45% at entry-level. However, this advantage is lost in middle-management promotion rates with 30% women reaching the VP level. Women were 64% as likely as their male colleagues to make the jump from senior manager or director to vice president. These numbers don’t give us a reason, but they do give us something to track.  Does this funnel exist in your organization? If so, look at who is getting promoted and who isn’t. Are promotional biases in play or could we do a better job at flexible working to keep women on an accelerated career track? Until we address the loss of talent in the middle of the pipeline, we will struggle to source the senior women in leadership positions and on boards that I aspire to in this blog.

Ask: The EY survey highlighted a disconnect between what men think would be valuable to help women attain leadership positions and what women want. For example, women valued mentoring from senior leaders as their highest priority, whereas men ranked it as the lowest priority. Next on the list for women is networking opportunities. This was the second lowest priority for men. This is effectively an inverse ranking. If you want to be more proactive in supporting gender diversity within your organization, ask your upcoming female leaders what they would find helpful.

Follow the leader: BIO has outlined its principles on workforce development, diversity and inclusion. Consider adopting these guidelines within your organization. Acorda is an example of a company that has made this commitment.

Join Forces: LifeSci Advisors have created an action plan, which involves support of both internal and external programs (like the Boardroom Ready program and Board Placement Initiative) to promote their diversity message. The plan includes a formal advisory board on gender diversity, comprising of female and male industry leaders who provide counsel on the goal of empowering women through the life sciences industry. This is a powerful group of leaders and I wonder if additional companies could join this initiative so that we can work together to achieve the shared benefit.

Recognising bad behaviour and expressing outrage is useful and has helped move things forward. But, in 2018, we need more than your signature.


With thanks to Morgen Alden, Kate Bingham, Kevin Lee, Michael Rice and Jane Wasman for reading drafts of this blog.

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