UPDATED: Women aren't equal in biopharma. Here's what 4 female leaders would do to fix that

Photo by Pawel Loj via Flickr

Every year, we at Fierce search out and profile a group of women who’ve risen to high-profile, influential positions in the biopharma business, many nominated by readers, some selected by our staff. It was scheduled to appear last week, but things happen, and now we find ourselves publishing amid the “Trump Tapes” storm of controversy, and a broader debate about women in American society.

Whatever your politics, it’s clear that many women don’t feel understood in a society dominated by men in positions of power, whether corporate or political. And biopharma has had its own controversy, in early 2016, when some rankly sexist behavior at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference triggered a backlash among some prominent women--and men--in the business.

At the time, FierceBiotech asked readers to give the industry a letter grade for gender diversity. The results were "stark," as one of our past Women in Biopharma told me recently. Sixty percent of women gave the industry a D or an F, and 28% more awarded a C. That’s 88% in a range no student would want on a transcript.

Men, on the other hand, gave biopharma an A or B for gender diversity.

In hopes of finding out more, in September, we presented a panel on women in the industry at the FierceBiotech Drug Development Forum in Boston. With four of our previous Women in Biopharma on hand to talk about their own experiences--and offer some ideas for better times ahead--a picture emerged of an industry that’s saying all the right things about gender balance and diversity of all kinds.

Most every company now has some sort of special program meant to give women training and opportunities. Whether that diversity effort actually yields change? Not necessarily, our panelists said. The fact is, the biopharma industry is full of highly educated people who say they’re committed to diversity. But where women make up about half of the entry-level workforce, that percentage declines precipitously the higher up the org chart you go.

That’s not to say there’s been no progress; the very fact that executives up the ladder aren’t just backing these programs but, in many cases, actually believe in them--that’s something. Anna Protopapas, who served in various executive roles, and eventually as president, at Takeda’s Millennium Pharmaceuticals, credited the then-CEO of Takeda for making a concerted effort to balance the company’s workforce and actually making real progress. “It has to come from the top,” she said.

Companies have policies that are family-friendly, but in some ultracompetitive workplaces, taking advantage of them can be frowned upon. Women who are fortunate enough to work where that’s not the case still have trouble balancing their careers and family, because like it or not, responsibilities at home often fall disproportionately to women, even now. How to deal with that continuing challenge, our panelists said, is the question they hear most from younger women in the field.

And despite the agreement that gender diversity is a good thing, our panelists said women are routinely left off short lists for new jobs, so even when a hiring manager is open to hiring or promoting a woman, it takes asking a second time.

Kathryn Jansen, Pfizer’s SVP and head of vaccine R&D, said an executive search firm might hand over a set of 10 applicants, all male. The only way to make sure women are considered for every position is to require every short list to include qualified female candidates, she said. “Ideally you want it to happen without having quotas, and there are pros and cons,” Jansen noted. “But you can say, we won’t consider your prospects unless you give us three or four women out of 10.”

Case in point: Protopapas, now CEO of Mersana Therapeutics, and her board of directors recently filled a vacancy. Protopapas wanted to at least consider some female candidates, and her board was receptive; obviously, because Protopapas is among the few women occupying CEO chairs in biopharma. But when the group sat around brainstorming candidates, every name that came to mind was a man.

Protopapas pushed for more, and finally was able to find good prospects--as solid as those the group came up with at the start--and elected a woman to the spot. The episode demonstrated the sort of reflex actions that can inadvertently leave women out--something her board was able to recognize and circumvent.

Family-friendly policies have done some work to help women advance in their careers; flexible schedules, job-sharing, working remotely--and on-site child care is particularly helpful (hint, hint). The training and awareness programs aimed at helping women get noticed and men on board are less helpful, our panelists said, though they’re still worth doing.

“We have to rely on both male and female executives to drive the process of change," said Sue Dillon, head of immunology R&D at Johnson & Johnson's Janssen unit. "We have to get both genders involved in recognizing problems and creating solutions.”

Programs that put up-and-coming women together with senior executives can be particularly helpful, some studies have found. Cyndi Verst, president of clinical operations at Quintiles, said her company’s Women Inspired Network now uses technology to allow women to network with multiple corporate executives at a time, rather than sticking to in-person events.

All our panelists credited mentors or sponsors who helped them along the way--“They went out on a limb for me,” Jansen said. So that’s working.

But what’s going to deliver big change? Our panelists agreed that, if the pace of change continues as it is now, decades will pass before biopharma can boast anything like gender balance. The above-and-beyond hiring efforts, for one. More extensive child-care benefits, for another. But because expectations of women are cultural--and real cultural change takes time--it could be education is even more important. As an audience member in Boston pointed out, education that starts even in preschool.

While we’re waiting for a newly enlightened generation to grow up, however, some nitty-gritty workplace education could help. Consider interrupting--a topical subject these days. Women and men can both be taught to challenge that sort of behavior when it comes up. “Often women are talked over,” Protopapas said. “If both men and women would step in and say, ‘let them speak,’ that would call out bad behavior in front of everybody.”

Or, training women to get comfortable asking for what they want, rather than expecting great work to be noticed and rewarded, as many women do, Dillon pointed out.

Where men go after raises and promotions proactively--and assertively--"most women don’t think like that," Dillon said. "They feel they need to check every single box” before asking for a promotion or new role. “We need to work with more of our junior colleagues to build their confidence, give them the drive to ask for advancement.”

Up-and-coming women need to learn to play politics, Jansen suggested. “Many women lack the savviness--how to maneuver in a political environment,” she said. “Perhaps there’s a way to influence that.”

“Success begets success,” Verst said during our discussion. The day our panel convened, GlaxoSmithKline announced it would elevate its consumer healthcare chief, Emma Walmsley, to take CEO Andrew Witty’s place. Perhaps in a sign of progress for women, the ensuing criticism--because there’s always criticism, no matter who’s been chosen--came from investors who were upset GSK picked an insider for the job. Not a hint of sexism.

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional comments from J&J's Sue Dillon. The spelling of Cyndi Verst's name was corrected from a previous version.