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Politics, Policy & Law

We’ve moved on from nude women parties. The progress is much bigger than that.

Commentary: Women should be shouting about their wins, and using them as a platform to demand more

March 10, 2020 1:58 AM UTC
Updated on Mar 11, 2020 at 4:57 AM UTC

Sunday was International Women’s Day. I looked back at a column I wrote in 2018 wondering how much of it was still relevant. Can something as fundamental as the situation for women in our industry change in that short a time?

Of course the answer on a grand scale is no. But maybe that’s not the way to look at it. There are some important wins, and we should be shouting those from the rooftops and using them as poster children to push for bigger change.

That column was written in the wake of an incident after BIO’s international conference when one of the after parties had nude women with sponsor logos painted on their bodies (see “Channel Your Outrage”).

The worst part was that wasn’t the first time. A similar event had happened a couple of years before, at an event after the 2016 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. (To be clear: neither event was associated with BIO or J.P. Morgan themselves).

The good news is there hasn’t been even a whisper of something like that since. And going out on a limb here, I don’t think there will be, at least in our industry.

There are some important wins, and we should be shouting those from the rooftops.

The outcry was enormous, first and loudest by an open letter from BioCentury Co-Founder and Chairman Karen Bernstein and SV Health Partners Managing Partner Kate Bingham, after the 2016 incident. The letter garnered hundreds of signatures from biotech CEOs and industry leaders across the spectrum, more than half of whom were male (see “Industry Leaders Take Stand”).

The second event triggered further outrage, followed by action. BIO spoke out at the time, and sponsors distanced themselves immediately.

Three months later, BIO set specific diversity goals for female representation, and said it would review membership status of companies that are “clearly inconsistent” with its values.

Those goals include achieving 50% representation of women at the functional leader and C-suite level by 2025; 30% female board membership in biotechnology by 2025, and additional goals related to racial and LGBTQ representation (see “Rise of the First Time Biotech CEO”).

Let’s not sugarcoat this: the picture is far from where it needs to be, but the goals didn’t even exist three years ago.

Counting the wins

Progress is coming from all directions: men, women and conferences are all taking seriously the idea that gender imbalance is not only wrong, but bad business.

BIO Chair Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics Inc. (NASDAQ:OVID), and his predecessor John Maraganore, CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NASDAQ: ALNY), have been vocal advocates for women’s equality, making it a core part of their platforms during their tenures at BIO. Ron Cohen, president and CEO of Acorda Therapeutics Inc. (NASDAQ:ACOR), established BIO’s Workforce Development, Diversity & Inclusion committee in 2017 during his term as chair.

BIO and many other conferences now have active policies to ensure their panels include women.

On top of that, around J.P. Morgan this year, there were more events by women, for women, than I’ve ever seen.

Some have been going for a while, such as the Pfizer Women’s Breakfast, spearheaded by Barbara Dalton, senior managing partner of Pfizer Ventures, or the Women Who Venture dinner led by Nina Kjellson, general partner at Canaan Partners. Others are new, like the Women In Bio Executive luncheon, this year headlined by Sandra Horning, former Genentech Inc. CMO and now co-founder of EQRx Inc.

Given that the JPM conference has been a men’s world for a long time, that’s no small win.

Other changes in the past few years have seen more women in top positions, and more top women making headlines.

The biggest is the appointment of Emma Walmsley as CEO of GlaxoSmithKline plc (LSE:GSK; NYSE:GSK) in March 2017 -- the first woman to head a pharma company.

Several other major biopharmas have attracted leading women to the top role. Two examples are Deborah Dunsire becoming president and CEO of H. Lundbeck A/S (CSE:LUN) in 2018 -- she was previously president and CEO of Millenium Pharmaceuticals Inc.; and Bahija Jallal taking the CEO position at Immunocore Ltd. last year, one of the U.K.’s leading biotechs. Jallal had been EVP of AstraZeneca plc (LSE:AZN; NYSE:AZN) and president of its MedImmune LLC subsidiary.

What sets these apart from the discussion about a female presidential candidate is that no one is asking whether a woman can do the job.

In some cases, top women have put their foot on the gas, continuing to lead in new directions.

Kleiner Perkins’ Beth Seidenberg, long a rare female member of the VC community, started her own life science investment firm together with Amgen Inc. (NASDAQ:AMGN) veteran Sean Harper, raising $320 million to start Westlake Village BioPartners in Los Angeles.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director of Biocon Ltd. (NSE:BIOCON; BSE:532523) who grew the company from the ground up, is now pioneering the production of low-cost insulin for developing markets.

And CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna added two companies to her repertoire in the past three years -- diagnostic company Mammoth Biosciences and stealth company Scribe Therapeutics Inc., a gene editing company. Doudna, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, has co-founded five companies.

Against the grain, a few VC firms are seeing women tipping the balance. Quan Capital Management LLC was launched in 2017 by a trio of female Chinese biopharma veterans: Samantha Du, Marietta Wu and Stella Xu. Canaan named Julie Grant general partner last year -- women now make up five of the seven members of Canaan’s healthcare investing team. And Sofinnova Partners, led by Managing Partner and President Antoine Papiernik, has made a point of filling its ranks with women, with an above-average 40% at the partner and managing partner level.

Women are making names in other areas traditionally dominated by men. Computer science guru Daphne Koller founded insitro Inc. to use big data and machine learning models to address problems in drug development, raising a $100 million series A round last year and securing a deal with Gilead Sciences Inc. (NASDAQ:GILD). And Regina Barzilay, a professor of computer science and AI at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is becoming a leading voice on AI in drug development. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”) in 2017.

What sets these apart from the discussion about a female presidential candidate is that no one is asking whether a woman can do the job. They just are.

Not all women who make it to the top have to make the issue a feature of their position; not all have to spend their time waving the banner.

But that doesn’t mean others can’t look to that progress, and wave the banner for them.

There’s no question that there’s a long way to go. The numbers for women in leadership positions are still dismal. But the way to make change is to recognize it when it happens, and then use it as a platform to demand more.

Editor’s Note: Simone Fishburn is Corporate VP and Editor in Chief at BioCentury. 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.