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Leaders Weigh In: How to Combat the Diversity Divide in Biotech

Theresa Brady
Theresa Brady
June 4, 2019

It’s one thing to talk about the importance of diverse and inclusive workforces. It’s another thing to see it in action. During the opening day of the 2019 BIO International Convention, two panel sessions, The Science of Shattering the Lab’s Glass Ceiling and The Business Case for Diversity: Dynamic Strategies for Promoting Diversity and Inclusion were proof not only of the incredible progress happening across the industry, but also the importance of continuing to accelerate the representation of racial, LGBTQ and gender diversity across functional leadership and C-Suite levels. 

In the first panel, moderated by Brady Huggett of Nature Biotechnology, we heard from high-ranking women who have successfully earned leadership positions in STEM – a still drastically imbalanced field with women representing only 24% of the STEM workforce, and only 15% of Board seats in biotech, despite entering the industry workforce at the same rate as men. 

Each of the high-achieving panelists have faced hurdles along the way, nodding heads when reflecting on their years of training, back when the women’s locker room was labeled “nurses” and the men’s locker room was labeled “doctors.” Or when parents encouraged young girls to get a degree and teach because “that’s what women do.”

“It encourages you to develop a strong character and remain resilient,” said Dr. Kathy High, President and Head of Research and Development, Spark Therapeutics. “These things change little by little with more women coming into the field. Every time someone pushes the boundary a little, it changes.”

Most panelists agreed that their transition or entry to biotech was jarring at some point or another. In an environment dominated by men, there is extra pressure to prove oneself, more room for self-consciousness, and an always-on competition.

“I’ve learned it’s more about marshalling the energy to become a competitive person, so you have a voice in the game,” said Gwendolyn Binder, EVP, Science and Technology, Cabaletta Bio.

And while each of the women are fiercely competitive, they also wholeheartedly agree in the power of collaboration and mentorship – gender agnostic.

 “Today there is no resistance to women going into science. The world is their oyster,” said Susan B. Dillon, President and CEO, Aro Biotherapeutics. “But you do need mentors, men or women, to help you steer.”

Dillon elaborated that without the advice and endorsement from others, women risk stalling. Someone needs to activate the confidence gene they lack.

As Dr. Julia Haller, Ophthalmologist-in-Chief at Wills Eye Hospital and Celgene board member, explained: this “confidence gene deficiency” has been proven in data. Women have been shown to behave differently than men in various situations, whether it’s accepting the first job offer without negotiation or holding back from new positions for fear of not being “perfect” enough. “We need to know this data and understand these discrepancies so we can fight against them,” said Haller

So, what are the necessary actions for bridging the diversity divide?

The second panel, moderated by freelance journalist Barbara Nastro, explored tangible strategies for moving the needle on diversity and inclusion. Panelist Dr. Helen Torley, President and CEO of Halozyme Therapeutics and chair of BIO’s Workforce Development, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, helped spearhead The Right Mix Matters – a newly launched campaign to support the industry in building more diverse leadership and workforces with actionable tools.

“These new tools address specific barriers biotech leaders tell us they face today in building diverse and inclusive teams and boards,” said Helen Torley, CEO of Halozyme and Chair of BIO’s board-level Workforce Development, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. “This is just the beginning, it’s going to take a lot to change attitudes and behaviors and we need to be open to and drive new and innovative ideas to do so.”

Other panelists included Patsy Doerr, Global Head, Corporate Responsibility and Inclusion, Thompson Reuters; Bahija Jallal, CEO and Director of the Board, Immunocore; and David Lucchino, CEO, Frequency Therapeutics.

In addition to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce because it’s the right thing to do, the panel discussed how important it is to a company’s long-term business strategy for growth and success. Simply put, clients want to work with and buy goods from organizations building diverse teams and investors seek out companies with a provable diversity and inclusion strategy. 

Top strategies discussed for incorporating Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives into the operations of your company? First, make the business case to leadership. Second, ensure you have set up the right mechanisms to make this a reality and help employees take action. Next, ensure the entire organizational culture supports this movement. Get CEOs and board members to embrace this winning mindset and make it more about a company lifestyle than an HR function. Finally, encourage and educate people to have open conversations. Have formal processes in place to support change and encourage informal conversations around traditionally sensitive topics.

 “We all have a very diverse approach to business that takes into account our own thoughts, style, experience and approach,” said Patsy Doerr, Global Head, Corporate Responsibility and Inclusion, Thompson Reuters. “The good news is the world is changing and more open to different types of people. We need the right leaders to be brave and innovative in their approaches to cultivating a new workforce.” 

A modern industry calls for modern leadership, and that has never been more important than today when the biotech industry sits at the cutting-edge of scientific and technological advancements that will only be possible with the right mix of talent, cultures and perspectives that define the patients we serve.