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“Woo, another woman!” a woman holding an information sign shouted at me at a hotel in San Francisco.
I was headed into a meeting as part of the craze that surrounds the JPMorgan healthcare conference.
At the conference, you’re far more likely to come across men than women. This is no secret: Even the organizers are aware of the discrepancy.
Last year, financial communications firm LifeSci Advisors threw a party at the conference in which the company hired models to mingle.
Word about the party spread, prompting Kate Bingham, a managing partner at UK-based venture capital firm SV Life Sciences and Karen Bernstein, whose company runs the news site BioCentury, to circulate an open letter to pharmaceutical executives. For Michael Rice, founding partner of LifeSci Advisors, it was a wake-up call.
“We made a mistake,” Rice told Business Insider over the phone in January. “We were wrong. We didn’t understand the outrage.”
After meeting with one of the women who penned the letter, Rice said he and the LifeSci team got to work on initiatives aimed at fixing the problem, including getting more women placed on the boards of biotech companies and looking internally to try and get more women into the company.
In pharma and biotech, the number of women in leadership roles is still fairly low. In September 2015, GSK announced that Emma Walmsley would become CEO, making her the first female chief executive of a big pharma company. In biotech, it’s estimated that only about 7-9% of chief executive roles are filled by women. It’s not an issue that’s unique to drugmakers: Among the Fortune 500, 4.2% were led by femal CEOs.
But for those few, there’s some optimism about what the future may bring.
Headed in the right direction
When Lion Biotechnologies CEO Maria Fardis started her PhD program at UC Berkeley, the class was made up about half men and half women. By the end, the number of women in the program had dropped to about 20%, she said.
But, Fardis said she now feels more optimistic about the number of women in science in 2017, particularly in leadership roles at healthcare companies.
“I am encouraged in the past few years, I think that people are making a cognizant effort to make sure that the opportunities that are created are equal,” she said. “I don’t think that women are getting any extra benefit compared to their colleagues, but I think that at a minimum they are given that equal opportunity to shine.”
Fardis noted that many of the members of Lion’s executive team, for example, are women, though that wasn’t intentional.
Helen Torley, CEO of Halozyme, is the only female CEO of a publicly traded biotech in San Diego, California. When she realized this in 2016, she decided to take a look at the gender breakdown of the company as a whole. Torley said that, at least across the different levels of the company, there was a balance between men and women who were hired.
That could bode well for future generations. Both Fardis and Torley said they observed a change in the upcoming generation, with more female scientists staying in the workforce to make it up to senior levels.
“While I’m a rarity at this stage, I think 10 years from now we’re going to have very many more female CEOs because they’re getting the right training and exposure.”
This year, LifeSci Advisors will not be throwing a party. Instead, Rice said he’s focusing on making sure gender diversity is something that everyone is thinking about by having that conversation with the people attending the conference.