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Science Exchange tackles the gender gap in R&D leadership: notes from the field

Recently, Science Exchange hosted or co-hosted a series of gatherings with a single goal: to discover reasons why there are so few women in leadership positions at pharmaceutical and biotech companies. 

In the top 10 pharma companies (by revenue), there is just one female CEO — and there has never been a female head of R&D in the top 50 pharma companies. On the bright side, Vertex just announced that their next CEO would be a woman — the first such appointment for a large biotech company.

Gender diversity in R&D dinner
Elizabeth speaking

Science Exchange’s co-founder and CEO, Elizabeth Iorns, PhD, has inspired many female entrepreneurs in male-dominated Silicon Valley, where the gender gap has been well-documented

But what drives the gender gap in biotech leadership? 

Elizabeth and her team sought answers at executive dinners hosted in San Francisco, Boston (co-hosted by Clora), and New York. Attending the events were both male and female R&D leaders from biotech companies, including companies that are using the Science Exchange enterprise platform to streamline their R&D outsourcing processes.

The gatherings provided valuable networking opportunities between men and women, identified by women in one EY survey as one of the most impactful steps toward obtaining leadership positions. In addition, the attendees were able to openly share their observations on trends shaping gender diversity in life science.

Are you an R&D leader interested in participating in a future networking event with Science Exchange? 

Contact us to let us know.

Observations included:

  • Women miss out on direct, immediate feedback. Women observed that male executives often give other men immediate feedback at the end of a presentation, for example, but they are less likely to provide this feedback to women.
  • Lack of sponsorship is a persistent barrier. Sponsors or champions are incredibly important for career progression into the most senior leadership roles, and there is a lack of male sponsorship of female candidates with high potential. Women are not being sponsored by male leaders for a variety of reasons, including perceived inappropriateness. 
  • Male leaders sincerely seek change. At each of the events, the men who attended expressed interest in increasing the proportion of women in leadership roles but felt a lack of clarity in the best way for them to effect change. As shown in the 2016 EY survey, men may not realize which steps have the highest impact on women’s career progression — and more structured communication is important for change.
  • Compared to large pharma, smaller biotechs have a greater percentage of women in leadership roles. A possible reason for this trend is that biotechs are more purely results-driven, creating an environment where a leader’s achievements and potential are valued, consciously or unconsciously, more highly than their network connections.


The path forward

It is hard to define the characteristics of a great R&D leader, especially in a large company, and difficult to pinpoint the sort of background required for such a position. The CEO of GSK came from commercial, not a scientific, background, and the CEO-to-be of Vertex is currently their Chief Medical Officer. Perhaps, because of this lack of definition, diversity programs at large companies have had relatively little success at increasing the number of women in the most senior roles.

Efforts like those of Science Exchange to document authentically how men got these roles and what the roles actually require in terms of skills and daily demands can contribute to developing clear criteria for selecting the best candidates. When such criteria are combined with networking opportunities, sponsorship, and growing resources for identifying qualified women (such as the BIO Boardlist), the drug discovery and development industry can start bridging its leadership gender gap.

Participate in future events: Are you an R&D leader interested in joining Science Exchange at future networking events? Contact us to let us know you’re interested.


Science Exchange Team


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