How to Break the Glass Ceiling of Leadership in the Biotech Industry

Out of a hundred junior men promoted to leadership positions, only eighty-seven women receive promotions. As a result, many more men than women are involved in leadership, and the inequality does not appear to be reducible, according to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org.

The glass ceiling is a well-known barrier that limits women’s career advancement. But what about the glass ceiling of leadership? This is a term used to describe the lack of female leaders in specific sectors, which initiatives such as Estée Lauder’s Emerging Leaders Fund are helping to remedy, by nurturing the next generation of female entrepreneurs.

Biotechnology is one such industry where women are still underrepresented in leadership positions. According to the third annual report “Measuring Diversity in the Biotech Industry”, only 34% of management teams and 20% of CEOs are women.

Leen Kawas, co-founder and managing partner of Propel Bio Partners, said, “if we don’t like the stats from women-led businesses, it’s up to us to change,” in an email. She offered four key strategies that will help break the glass ceiling of biotechnology leadership.

1. Increase funding for women-led businessess

There is a clear correlation between the amount of funding a business receives and its success. However, “funding for businesses founded by women has not improved in recent years and has, in fact, declined,” said Kawas – who, according to Business Intern and GeekWire, was the first woman to take a company public in 20 years in Washington State, one of 22 female founders and CEOs to lead their company to an IPO – in an interview. “Only 2.0% of venture capital went to these companies in 2021, compared to 2.8% in 2009,” she added. Kawas continued, “Only 12% of decision makers in investment firms are women, and 65% have no women among their leaders and decision makers.” This lack of female representation among investors may be one of the main reasons why women-led businesses receive less funding.

2. Eliminate hidden biases

The first step in combating bias is recognizing that it exists. According to a study published by Harvard Business Review, hiring an equal number of women and men in an organization will not end prejudice against women. In fact, even when more women are present, gender bias persists because it is ingrained in the system. These biases can manifest themselves in several ways. For example, another study published by harvard business review concluded that when VCs assess companies, they ask different questions of male and female entrepreneurs: men are typically asked about earning potential, while women are asked about risks. Giana Eckhardt, professor of marketing and associate dean at King’s Business School at King’s College London, believes that one way to eliminate hidden biases is to use explicit and inclusive criteria to assess individuals. “Women are judged to have less leadership potential than men, even though they consistently have higher performance ratings,” Eckhardt said in an interview. Her view aligns with new research led by McKinsey, which identifies that women are changing jobs at the fastest rate in years, making it, according to Eckhardt, “imperative for biotech companies to address biases oblivious in the process of promotion or losing their female talent. ”

3. Establish a mentorship

According to Sunitha Narendran, dean of the faculty of business and law at the University of Roehampton, for more women to succeed in leadership positions, it is important to have role models and mentors in the industry. She believes that women who support other women are essential in any workplace, but especially relevant in an environment where the odds seem against them. “Based on available statistics, I agree that while the proportion of women in life sciences is equal to that of men, the percentage of women in leadership positions in biotechnology continues to be low, becoming even more weak at CEO level,” Narendran said in an interview. She added: “A recent study by S&P Global Research of the leadership style narratives of female leaders in times of economic uncertainty found that female CEO leadership used more terms associated with inclusiveness, empathy, adaptability and transformation.” So, although the number of women in leadership positions in the industry is still low, there are signs that the situation is changing. Mentoring can help by providing women with the opportunity to learn from more experienced industry leaders and gain the skills and confidence they need to succeed. For example, last month Manchester Digital set up a mentorship program to help women in tech develop their careers. Kawas believes that this type of initiative can have a positive impact on the number of women in leadership positions in the future.

4. Engage in sponsorship

Sponsorship differs from mentoring in that it is a two-way relationship in which the sponsor uses their influence to help the person they are sponsoring. A study published by harvard business review found that women are less likely than men to be sponsored by senior executives. Indeed, women are more likely to be seen as competent rather than leaders, as Eckhardt inferred. As a result, they are less likely to be chosen for positions of power and influence. “Women are less likely to find sponsors who help advance their careers,” Kawas said. “They need people who will actively help them grow within and outside of their organizations.” Several initiatives and programs are trying to help. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers leadership development programs for women in the biomedical sciences. Meanwhile, the Society for Women’s Health Research hosts networking and training events for women in the biotech industry. These events provide a supportive community for women and can help them develop the skills and connections they need to succeed in leadership roles and, most importantly, find sponsors.

In summary, it is clear that women are still significantly underrepresented in leadership positions within biotechnology. But, Kawas is optimistic. “I believe we will see more women in leadership positions as the industry continues to mature and diversify,” she said. “The next generation of leaders will be more inclusive, and we are already seeing this happening, and at Propel we aim to be part of the change.”

Thus, with time, effort, and implementation of the four strategies discussed, it is possible to achieve a more diverse and inclusive industry that provides opportunities for all. This has the potential to accelerate innovations and generate significant returns for all stakeholders involved in the wider life sciences, including patients, physicians and investors. And isn’t that what we all want?

Leave a Reply