2019's Fiercest Women in Life Sciences

The most common piece of advice from the Fiercest Women of 2019 is to take risks. (Jon Shaw/Questex Media)

In 2018, more men named Michael gave presentations at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference than female CEOs did, by Stat News’ count. One year later, women triumphed over the Michaels, with 33 female CEOs presenting at the industry confab versus 19 men named Michael. But it was a small victory, as men still made up 90% of the 533 executives on deck to present that year.

Now, as we look toward 2020, new programs from industry groups like the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and laws from states like California and countries including Norway, Germany and France are well under way. But just how effective have they been?

Female representation in the C-suite has grown to 21%, according to this year’s “Women in the Workplace” report by McKinsey and Lean In, the nonprofit founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. That's up from 17% in 2015—an increase of just 4 percentage points. The report did find that 44% of the 329 companies it surveyed had three or more women in the C-suite, up from 29% of companies in 2015.

But despite these advances, the report concluded that “parity remains out of reach.” Even as more women continue to ascend the corporate ladder, others are held back by a “broken rung.” 

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“The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level and fewer women becoming managers,” the report said. And this early inequality only compounds as you look up the ranks. 

“The number of women decreases at every subsequent level. So even as hiring and promotion rates improve for women at senior levels, women as a whole can never catch up. There are simply too few women to advance,” the report said. 

Rosana Kapeller, M.D., Ph.D., entrepreneur in residence at GV, the venture arm of Google's parent company Alphabet and one of this year’s honorees, sees this changing, though. As more women take on top-level roles, they tend to hire other women: “I truly believe like hires like. … The way to empower diversity is to get diverse people in power,” she said. “Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I see a bright future.”

One such woman is Sheila Gujrathi, M.D., CEO of Gossamer Bio. As one of the few women of color who helm biotech companies, Gujrathi has made it a priority to support other female CEOs, women seeking leadership opportunities and women in STEM fields. She’s driven to be a role model for aspiring women leaders both within her company and without. 

“I want to be that role model at Gossamer, and if I can, in life sciences in general. And I want to show, not tell, and really try and break down these barriers that I have had to fight, and continue to fight, each and every day, frankly,” she said. 

One of those barriers is the expectations of how a business leader looks and behaves. 

“When I started working, to be successful as a woman you had to be like a man. That was the norm,” said Jacki Dioguardi, vice president of commercial business technology solutions at AbbVie. “You wanted to emulate those characteristics. We’re finally starting to move to diversity where we're valued the same but we’re allowed to be different.”

That said, being different—being yourself—doesn’t mean being comfortable, several honorees said. The most common piece of advice for women looking to advance in their careers is to take risks. 

“It’s very important for women to be taught from a very young age that taking risk is okay, that you cannot wait in your office and hope that somebody will see you and recognize you,” said Ivana Magovčević-Liebisch, Ph.D., J.D., chief business officer at Ipsen. “You need to be comfortable asking for it, you need to go for those stretch jobs. Don’t wait until you feel you’re fully comfortable, because your male colleagues do not.” 

And if someone says no, ask why. 

“‘No’ is the first step of a negotiation,” said Sandra Glucksmann, Ph.D., CEO of Cedilla Therapeutics. “If somebody says no, ask what you need to accomplish or demonstrate to take on that role. You don’t have to be aggressive—you should create a dialogue—but do ask." 

Read on to learn more about this year’s fiercest women in life sciences. They join the women honored in last year’s list, and those on the 2017 list, our first to include women from the medtech sector.

— Amirah Al Idrus (email | Twitter)