Channel your outrage

Editor’s Commentary: Addressing lack of women in leadership is best response to PABNAB

Before the dust settles on the PABNAB debacle, save some outrage for what really matters: not the periodic stripper party that screams “sickening,” but the entrenched attitudes and daily affronts that end up keeping women on the sidelines rather than at the forefront of our industry.

Women live in an environment where to be male is normal, to be female is “diverse.”

What that means is that the default audience is male. And it means that the leadership of our industry, throughout the ecosystem, is overwhelmingly male.

Women live in an environment where to be male is normal, to be female is “diverse.”

Last week’s news of half-naked women, painted with sponsor logos, at the Party At BIO Not Associated with BIO, was just the latest sign of how far there is still to go.

PABNAB had its apologists. But from social media to the cubicles of Kendall Square, a sizable contingent turned deaf ears to the defenders’ protestations that it was just in good fun ... an annual occurrence ... a First Amendment right ... no-one else’s business ...

BIO spoke out, too. (As its name indicates, the party was not connected with the BIO annual conference in Boston, during which it was held.)

President and CEO Jim Greenwood called out the party for its objectification of women and said the organization would consider action against sponsors in the future if such entertainment is repeated.

BIO Chairman John Maraganore, also CEO of Alnylam Inc., proposed zero tolerance for sponsors and organizers, stating in his view they should “not be welcome as members of BIO.”

At least 12 of the sponsors have now distanced themselves from the event, telling BioCentury they were unaware of the planned entertainment, including Demy-Colton Life Science Advisors who also issued a statement condemning the party. EBD Group said it voiced concern both during and after the event. Alpha Blue Ocean, a gold sponsor whose name was painted on at least one of the dancers, said it would not sponsor in the future.

Those statements and the attendant Twitter outrage arguably were another reflection of the year of #MeToo, where women have decided to push back, step up and make themselves heard.

But the upshot has to be more than a message to party organizers not to degrade women at industry-associated events. The push-back needs to extend to the big picture of where women stand in the life sciences ecosystem.

The message in the numbers

For an industry that is built on numbers, from discovery assays to clinical trials to market share, we continue to ignore the starkest statistical misalignment of all -- the delta between the talent pool of women and the rate at which we harness that talent to drive decisions, lead companies and turn innovations into breakthrough drugs.

VC firms are still infamously unbalanced. Only 9.6% of partners in VC firms and 18.1% in corporate VCs are female, according to a 2014 survey of 1,491 companies in the biotech industry in the U.S. and Europe by search firm Liftstream Ltd.

Biotech companies are still infamously unbalanced. Women make up about 21% of leadership teams in SMEs, and 13.9% in big biotechs.

And boardrooms are still infamously unbalanced. In the U.S., 9.7% of SME board members are female, in Europe, 11.2%. In big biotechs, women represent 19.2% of the directors, according to Liftstream.

Moreover, the survey found nearly 60% of biotech boardrooms in Europe and 52% in the U.S. had no women at all.

Law firms, academia, NIH, and other parts of the ecosystem tell the same story.

And yet, roughly the same numbers of women and men graduate with advanced degrees. In 2013-14, 53% of biomedical science Ph.D.s and 47% of MDs in the U.S. were awarded to women, according to the most recent numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The “pipeline” argument -- that women opt out, so there just aren’t enough to lead one’s company, join one’s firm, or even sit on one’s steering committee -- is a lazy excuse.

The “pipeline” argument -- that women opt out, so there just aren’t enough to lead one’s company, join one’s firm, or even sit on one’s steering committee -- is a lazy excuse. It fails to hold us all accountable for the reasons the pipeline is leaky.

True -- women have babies, often hold themselves back, don’t push for promotions, and so on.

Also true -- men have children, often hold themselves back, don’t always push for promotions, and so on.

But men have well-entrenched networks of support among the incumbent leaders. They also don’t encounter the same questions, attitudes and assumptions about how they should conduct themselves.

Ask any woman in leadership (there are a few if you search), and she’ll have a story or two about having being told to speak less forcefully, not step on people’s toes, bring the coffee -- or worst of all, about just being ignored.

These are just some of the indignities and obstacles that women contend with every day.

Of course, it’s not universal. I and other women have been the beneficiaries of healthy work environments and unblinkered managers. This cohort is also testimony to the idea that a workplace that listens to all voices and seeks all talent can be more successful.

A 2016 Credit Suisse report, for example, reported companies in which women comprised 25%, 33% or more than 50% of senior leadership teams between 2013-16 outperformed at compound annual growth rates of 2.8%, 4.7% and 10.3% respectively, compared with a 1% decline in the MSCI ACWI index in the same period. The index measures equity market performance of mid- and large cap companies throughout the world.

Others have drawn similar conclusions. A 2017 study from McKinsey & Co. of more than 1,000 companies in 12 countries found those in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average EBIT margin than companies in the lowest quartile, and a 27% higher likelihood of outperforming on longer-term value creation according to the firm’s calculation of economic profit margin.

Do more

So before your remnants of outrage over the indecency of the PABNAB party die down, channel them toward a daily vigilance of changing the culture.

First of all, change the inbuilt assumption that women must adapt to succeed.

First of all, change the inbuilt assumption that women must adapt to succeed.

Create an environment where a different type of talent, candidates who don’t look like the “typical” CEO or head of R&D, and individuals who bring different perspectives can rise to the top.

Take an honest look at candidate lists for senior positions, mentoring programs or stretch assignments to see what proportion is female.

Instead of assuming your company doesn’t have a problem, dig deeper to ask if it does.

Drop unfounded assumptions about who can do what and who will burn the midnight oil, and look for talent among people who might not be on your standard roster. Some of my most productive team members -- female and male -- have had to take care of young children while responsible for major assignments. Some of my best hires have joined in their third trimester of pregnancy.

Rather than falling back on the tired trope of “I hire the best talent, whoever that is” -- which the numbers clearly belie -- insist on going beyond your immediate network for the “shoe-in” friend-of-a-friend, and consider candidates with more degrees of separation. They might require more vetting but offer fresh thinking and better rewards.

Instead of rejecting someone for not being a culture fit, think twice if your culture is all it should be.

And take a moment to ask some junior women in your company if there are pockets of unwelcome behavior; do they see the company like you do?

There are many avenues for finding female talent, providing opportunities for visibility, and tapping into or supporting educational programs via non-profit organizations.

Find ways to send a message that yours is a company where women can thrive.

As women increasingly find their voice, they will find their feet, too, and go where they aren’t “diverse” but are the norm. The numbers suggest those will be the success stories. And when the audience is seen as half-female, the entertainment won’t ignore their taste.

So most of all, don’t let the moment pass to turn something so offensive into a longer-lasting benefit.

Editor’s Note: Simone Fishburn is Corporate Vice President and Executive Editor of both BioCentury and BioCentury Innovations. She is a board member and former president of Women In Bio, a non-profit organization committed to promoting careers, leadership and entrepreneurship for women in life sciences.

Companies and Institutions Mentioned

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NASDAQ:ALNY), Cambridge, Mass.

Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), Washington, D.C.

National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, Md.

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