2018's Fiercest Women in Life Sciences

(Lia Shaked/Questex Media)

Things are looking up for women—or so they seem. In the era of #MeToo, more and more women are speaking up about workplace harassment and discrimination, and the perpetrators are increasingly held accountable. Industry groups, like the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), and states, such as California, are implementing rules to increase the proportion of women on corporate boards.

That's encouraging. But in a way, these advances only highlight the hurdles professional women still face, even women at the top of their fields. 

Take Donna Strickland, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, and Frances Arnold, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. They are two of three female Nobel laureates in this year’s field of 12 prizewinners. Yet, until about an hour and a half after Strickland’s award was announced, the optical physicist was not considered important enough to have her own Wikipedia page. She shares the Nobel Prize for physics with two men; her colleague Gérard Mourou has had his own Wikipedia entry since 2005. 

Life sciences is little different. Women fill half of the industry’s entry-level positions, but make up only 20% of leadership teams and 10% of boards, according to a study conducted by MassBio and LiftStream (PDF).

Individual companies and industry groups have come up with programs to help move women up the ladder. After LifeSci Advisors threw a model-staffed J.P. Morgan after-party in 2016—prompting widespread outrage—the company rehabbed its image by starting a "Boardroom Ready” program aimed at placing more women on boards.

BIO weathered its own scandal when an unofficial party held during its annual international convention—the Party At BIO Not Associated with BIO—featured topless dancers, their bodies painted with the logos of investment groups and biotech companies sponsoring the event. The industry group, which had set up and ratified a set of diversity goals in June 2017, condemned the event. In a letter sent this October, BIO reiterated some of those goals, namely increasing the number of women at the functional leader and C-suite level to 50% from the current 25% and at the board level to 30% from the current level of 10%.

Still, programs can only work if there's a diverse pool of talent to choose from, and that's something this year's fiercest women are working to develop.

Sara Kenkare-Mitra, Genentech’s senior vice president of development sciences, emphasized the importance of “investing in the next generation of female—and male—scientists and leaders.” 

"We believe that by investing time, expertise and resources in science education, we can help ensure a talented and diverse pipeline of STEM professionals for the future,” she said. 

Many of our honorees came of age when few women occupied high-level positions. While most women at smaller companies didn’t have a chance at formalized mentoring, they did have invaluable mentors and coaches along the way. Now, as their companies grow large enough to support formal programs, many are paying it forward, formally or informally coaching employees earlier in their careers. 

Their most common piece of advice for women looking to advance? Be bold. It can seem as if an opportunity comes too soon, before a woman feels qualified. But Synlogic CEO Aoife Brennan and GlaxoSmithKline CMO Kate Knobil, M.D., tell women to try it anyway. 

“It seems like women want to be overqualified before they put themselves up for a position, whereas a man might say, ‘Well, I might not have all the experience, but I can do that.’ So I encourage women to think that way, too. Don’t wait to be 100% qualified before putting yourself forward,” Knobil said. 

Equally important is asking for the next step, said Marion Dorsch, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of Blueprint Medicines. 

“Make sure that your supervisor and the people around you know where you want to go and what your ambitions are. Don’t be shy to ask for help and ask for ways to develop in the direction you want to.” 

Read on to learn more about this year’s fiercest women in life sciences. They join the women honored in last year’s list, our first to include women from the medtech sector, and those on the 2016 list

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that PABNAB is not a BIO-sanctioned event and that BIO ratified a set of diversity goals in June 2017, a year before the party.