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Why is there a lack of gender equality in biopharma?

Gender equality remains a persistent challenge within the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. Female CEOs account for less than 10% of leaders in these companies – but why?

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I am writing this article as a young woman with a science degree and an ambitious career path in mind, but I am disheartened by this issue still needing attention. The fact that women remain so poorly under-represented in an industry that I am striving to be a part of is quite devastating. Currently, the situation seems slightly destitute – how can progress be so slow for an issue that has been spoken about for decades? Perhaps the biggest frustration for me is that I cannot comprehend a simple solution or a ‘quick fix’ to bridge the considerable gap.

A greater awareness and understanding of the fundamental underlying issues is a good place to start, though.

‘Gender parity will not be attained for 99.5 years’

At the current rate, gender equality will not be achieved for nearly one hundred years – a sobering fact. This makes it probable that none of us will live to witness gender parity, nor will many of our children.

In the biopharma industry, men account for 92% of CEO roles. The average biopharma CEO compensation is around $7 million. This means that male CEOs accumulate a total of $1.2 billion in annual compensation, whilst only $102 million goes to female CEOs. Money aside, the impact that this inequity has on companies and the toll it plays on society is far fetching.

Why are there so many more men in biopharma? STEM is a broad term used to group together science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is thought that several factors are responsible for the gender bias in STEM-related industries. The stereotype that men are inherently better at maths or science than women is an obvious issue. This has been scientifically proven to be untrue, but even if it was, complex problems are not only solved by pure maths – they require complicated solutions and multifaceted thinking.

Unconscious gender bias can also be particularly problematic in science-based roles. It consists of unintentional and automatic mental associations based on gender, and often stems from traditions, norms or cultures. These are then reinforced by our everyday lives, without any realisation. For example, a google image search for ‘professor’ was found to associate 90% of the results with white men, meaning that the vast majority of the science professionals we see every day on the internet are male. These examples, and others like them, reinforce the fact that, not deliberately, women are being continuously influenced away from STEM careers on a day-to-day basis.

"A google image search for ‘professor’ was found to associate 90% of the results with white men."

Despite more male applicants, the number of women accepted into the American Medical Colleges outnumbered men in 2019. This suggests that women are capable of outperforming men and that they are, in fact, choosing to study science-related subjects. Therefore, the greatest challenges that women face in STEM must lie in pursuing and maintaining their careers.

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Only 18% of women with a higher science degree are employed in that specific field, compared to 33% of men. Percentages of females are lost at every stage of career progression – in biopharma companies, an average of 47% of all workers are women, but this proportion shrinks to just 8% at CEO level. Although, compared to other industries, this is not as awful as it appears. Of the top US corporations with the highest total revenues, referred to as the Fortune 500, only 6.6% of the CEOs were women.

The issue is clear – men and women enter the workforce with advanced degrees in medicine and science at almost the same rate, but women then either drop out or hit a plateau in their careers. There is not one defined stage in a STEM-related occupation where all the women vanish. Maternity is usually referenced as an obvious reason for women to step away from her job, but this should be a temporary absence. In 2019, a UK-based study found that 90% of new fathers were in full-time work three years after their child was born, but less than 30% of new mothers were employed. After five years of being parents, 26% of men had been promoted compared to just 13% of women. This highlights that becoming a mother is a serious risk factor for dropping out of a career or plateauing in progression. Professor Susan Harkness, who led this research, said: “Worryingly, it appears that women who return to employment typically see their chances of moving up the occupational ladder decrease. Women who return to the same employer risk becoming stuck in their job roles with limited career progression.”

It is clear that childbirth disproportionately affects childcare responsibilities and, in turn, employment between genders. But to reach gender equality in leadership positions, these ‘traditional’ norms must shift. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has further fuelled the rate of females dropping out of work. It has been reported that up to 2 million women have considered leaving their industry within the last year – much more than men.

Although the exact reasons that push women to leave their careers in biopharma are not clear, perhaps there is a certain point in time when further progression seems impossible or higher positions appear unobtainable. Whether this be due to the accumulation of everyday unconscious gender bias or a lack of support from colleagues, it is a fundamental problem that needs to be explored and reversed.

‘Diverse companies are more likely to outperform’

Dawn Barry was the president of Applied Genomics at Illumina before moving to the board of the Alzheimer’s Association. She has also been an advocate for women pursuing careers in STEM-related subjects and has provided an insight into some of the issues surrounding gender equality in the healthcare industry. When interviewed for the Del Mar Times, Barry explained: “If women aren’t at the table, one could argue that the products won’t be as inclusive as they should be. I think we’ve witnessed that – in terms of women’s health lagging well behind, in health products and the companies that investors invest in. So, we need many more women at the leadership table in STEM fields.”

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Nearly two-thirds of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease are women and about two-thirds of the caregivers to patients with the condition are also women. Overall, 77% of the NHS workforce are female. Moreover, women tend to make most of the healthcare decisions for their families. Could it be described as ‘bad business’ to exclude these voices when setting the drug development agenda? Having so little women in the decision-making roles of biopharma companies does not allow the organisations to operate in the best way possible. If the concept of gender equality alone is not enough to drive inclusiveness for females, then the higher profitability of companies might.

"Why do I still not feel convinced that a genuine effort is being made to rectify gender disparity?"

Extensive research has shown that companies with diverse executive teams are more likely to perform better financially and that organisations with policies to promote inclusion present higher levels of innovation. Companies with the best gender representation on their boards were found to generate a significantly higher return on sales than those with few or no women. In 2019, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to beat average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. This percentage is growing year on year. The advantages of having an equal gender split in leadership roles within the biopharma industry are apparent – social missions are more likely to be fulfilled and profitability will soar. So why do I still not feel convinced that a genuine effort is being made to rectify gender disparity? There is a glimmer of hope for change.

‘The goal is not to create diversity for diversity’s sake’

While woman remain underrepresented in science and engineering, they are gaining ground. The beginning of an ever-so-slow shift towards gender equality is beginning to take place. In 2020, 70% of biotechnology companies listed diversity and inclusion as a priority, which was a significant increase from the previous year. Between 1993 and 2015, the number of women in life sciences increased by almost 175%.

It has been reported that the people who pick board members in biopharma are not in contact with enough senior women. This means that when it comes to appointing female leaders, the same small group of women are contacted – and they cannot say yes to every opportunity. Nonetheless, it seems that this barrier is slowly being dissolved as more women are now gradually being recognised in important positions within the drug industry. Emma Walmsley became the CEO GlaxoSmithKline in 2017, making her the first female to run a major pharmaceutical company.

This was a huge step for the industry, but in my eyes, it was tainted for several reasons. It was uncovered that Walmsley’s base salary was over £100,000 less than her male predecessor’s. Also, years later, she remains the only woman chief of a top 20 pharma company. This just shows that the world of biopharmaceuticals fails miserably in the number of women in leadership roles and does not pay them equally either.

Who wants to feel like they are only being positioned into a role because of their sex, not because of their skills or abilities?

Several initiatives, such as the BIO Boardlist, are attempting to create a positive change. This is a website where industry executives can search through catalogues of candidates to find board members. Despite there being around 50 women on the list, it has not yet led to a direct placement. Nevertheless, the initiative slashes the excuse of ‘I cannot find a qualified female’ and is a good start to the long process ahead of reaching equality.

Many organisations pride themselves on compiling tip sheets and presentations about female inclusion, but if increasing women’s representation in biopharma turns into a box-ticking exercise rather than a complete remodel of the industry culture, any progress that is made will not be permanent. When women are being recruited for leadership roles, it is common practise for job hunters to admit that one of the predominant factors for their hiring is to increase the diversity of a company. Who wants to feel like they are only being positioned into a role because of their sex, not because of their skills or abilities? Women are notoriously less confident than men, and this just knocks their self-esteem further.

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The biotechnology company Halozyme Therapeutics is run by Helen Torley. In her climb to the top, she said that she noticed a “protectionist mindset, fuelled by unconscious biases that are often unfairly applied to women”. In 2015, Torley realised that she was listed as the only female CEO across all of the public biotechnology companies in San Diego. She found this unacceptable and raised the issue to the Workforce Development, Diversity and Inclusion (WDDI) committee of BIO. She worked tirelessly with WDDI to explore what is holding CEOs back from reviewing their talent development processes and, ultimately, creating more diverse leadership teams.

In 2020, it was found that less than 40% of companies in biopharma have systems in place that measure its leaders progress towards meeting diversity and inclusion goals. This was a decrease from the previous year. Facts like this help to confirm my suspicions about STEM-related organisations using gender equality initiatives as publicity stunts and not tackling the problem. Leaders within the industry need to be held accountable for their lack of improvement surrounding diversity and more transparency is required to make meaningful progression towards goals surrounding gender parity.

‘Grow the confidence of future female leaders’

Women-led biopharma companies, such as Halozyme, are setting prime examples of organisations that prioritise gender diversity. But, from my perspective as a young, ambitious woman with a science degree, this does not seem overly hopeful. If the only large STEM-based companies that are genuinely striving towards empowering female leaders are run by women, it is no wonder that gender equality in the biopharma industry will not be reached within our lifetime. This issue has been talked about for years and years, but still, no solid actions have been taken that show meaningful and measurable changes. Growing the confidence of future female scientists is crucial and requires visible actions to be taken on several different levels – starting from at school and continuing all the way up to board seats. Only when the success of female leaders in biopharma is demonstratable and celebrated, will woman rise to their full potential and believe that they can break the ‘traditional’ norms to follow in succession.

About the author

I am a young woman with a science degree and an ambitious career path in mind. I have grown up watching my Mum be an incredibly fierce and successful female in a male-dominated corporate world, which perhaps is what has driven me to become so passionate about gender equality in the workplace. I am determined not to let my gender define my place in the scientific community and work hard to break stereotypes.


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