Biotech Faces Up to Our Own Leadership Diversity Challenge

Biotech Faces Up to Our Own Leadership Diversity Challenge

Disease is an equal-opportunity enemy. It strikes men and women; children and seniors; and people of every race, ethnicity and nationality. It’s hard to imagine an industry with a more diverse customer base than the biotechnology companies creating next-generation cures for patients around the world.

Yet too often, the leadership ranks of our innovative companies are skewed overwhelmingly male. Nationally, only 10 percent of board of director slots and 7 to 9 percent of CEO positions at biotech companies are filled by women, according to national surveys by Liftstream.

Earlier this year, the BIO Board of Directors ratified the first-ever set of biotech industry diversity principles to attract and groom the best and brightest to steer the life sciences into the 21st century.

In an op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, Halozyme CEO Helen Torley – who chairs BIO’s Committee on Workforce Development, Diversity and Inclusion – identified the problem and outlined BIO’s plans to help diversify the industry’s leadership ranks to better reflect the patients we serve. She wrote:

Equal opportunity is an American value, and it should be present in every workplace because it’s fair and morally right. But biotechs working on life-or-death medicines have a special responsibility to cultivate diverse leaders. The diseases we’re researching often disproportionately impact a particular gender or race. Indeed, it is not unusual for disease progress, symptoms or side effects to be different in men than women.

Moreover, how a particular community perceives – or even stigmatizes – different behaviors or illnesses can impact both adherence to treatment regimens and long-term survivability. These are no small matters for biotech companies devising marketing and education strategies to get treatments to patients in need.  Biopharmaceutical leadership teams should have firsthand expertise in the biological realities and cultural considerations of the different populations they serve.
By year’s end, BIO will finalize an action plan to help build a pipeline of diverse candidates for C-suite and board positions in our industry. It will include unconscious bias training for biotech employees, increased access to sponsorship opportunities, and other assistance so a more diverse pool of executives can learn about board vacancies and obtain the requisite qualifications to fill them.

Torley is the only female CEO out of 44 publicly traded biotechnology companies in San Diego. She noted that creating more inclusive leadership teams will take time and effort but expressed confidence that our industry can make meaningful progress.

There’s no magic wand that’s going to solve the biotech industry’s diversity challenge overnight. But we’re uniquely capable of studying the problem, following the research and making incremental progress to solve an intractable challenge. After all, that’s the essence of innovation. And we’re already taking a step forward by recognizing the link between saving lives and promoting diverse leaders who truly understand them.

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