On International Women’s Day, Xtalks is celebrating women’s leadership in the life sciences by highlighting some of the female leaders at the forefront of scientific discovery, as well as the continuing challenges of attaining more equitable representation.
From leading COVID-19 vaccine developments to being at the helm of the latest gene therapies and inventing ground-breaking DNA technologies like CRISPR, women have been at the forefront of some of the most leading-edge scientific discoveries in recent years, both as innovators and leaders.
In the highly dynamic, fast-paced and competitive worlds of the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries, women are not just keeping pace, but are driving the pace through cutting edge, revolutionary and timely scientific contributions.
And despite much progress having been made in increasing female representation in the life sciences, particularly in leadership positions, women continue to face unique challenges and obstacles in scientific fields.
Nevertheless, women in the life sciences continue to push old norms and boundaries to create new ones that reflect the innovative science that they are helping to drive.
With exciting new applications being developed in the areas of gene therapy, CRISPR and RNA editing, the contributions of women to these fields was highlighted in a piece we published last year on women scientists who paved the way forward in genetics. From Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the structure of DNA to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier winning the Nobel Prize for their discovery of CRISPR genome editing and BioNTech co-founder Özlem Türeci leading the COVID fight with her company’s leading COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, women continue to push the envelope in genetics research and biotech.
The Healthcare Technology Report assembles annual lists of the top leaders in life science industries. This year, the Top 25 Women Leaders in Biotechnology of 2021 outlined some of the most prominent female trailblazers in biotech. At the top of the list was Eun Young Yang, Vice President and Head of Global Sales, Samsung Biologics, a leading contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO). Within two years of the launch of Samsung’s CDO business, Yang led a team that directed around 50 CDO projects. The South Korean-based company has been growing its global reach and notably, also joined the fight against COVID-19 by partnering with Moderna to help manufacture its COVID-19 vaccine.
The list also included leaders from GRAIL, a healthcare company developing early cancer detection technologies, Stephanie Gutendorf, Senior Vice President of Enterprise Partnership and Alice Chen, Vice President of Product and Head of Program Management Organization. Compared with previous years’ lists, this year’s list also included many newer and startup biotechs with women as co-founders and chief of operations, such as Sofia Elizondo who heads the biotech startup Brightseed. Brightseed leverages artificial intelligence (AI) technology to detect plant-based nutritional bioactivities that can be integrated into common food items.
Similarly, while the Healthcare Technology Report’s Top 25 Women Leaders in Medical Devices 2021 included women in leadership roles at traditional stalwart companies like Johnson & Johnson (Ashley McEvoy, Executive Vice President, Worldwide Chairman of Medical Devices) and Medtronic (Karen Parkhill, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer), it also included women like Noemi Ray who is Co-Founder and Vice President, Production Operations at PaceMate, a cardiac medical technology startup company. PaceMate raised $8 million in Series A funding last year for the development of remote cardiac monitoring technologies.
Challenges in Women’s Leadership
The overarching underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in life science industries means that there are fewer female role models and mentors that can provide the education and support to women looking to step into executive positions in life science industries.
To address this gap, companies like Blueprint Medicines have programs like their Mentor Program, Women’s Leadership Circle and Learning & Development coaching sessions, which aim to encourage career growth.
There are also women’s leadership training programs specifically geared towards the unique needs and experiences of women in the business world, which are often quite different from that of men. Such programs are available at leading universities including Cornell, Harvard and the University of Oxford among others.
A recent article in Forbes highlighted the benefit of women’s leadership training programs because women’s leadership styles tend to differ from those of men. Moreover, social and cultural factors lead to gender stereotypes that impact perceptions and outcomes. For example, women who are assertive and successful may be dubbed “bossy” or “overly ambitious” whereas a man with the same attributes is likely to be perceived as confident. This is a recognized “gender discount” that is a product of the different social realities between the two genders.
Studies show that women can benefit from leadership training earlier on. A Girls Attitudes Study showed that adolescent girls are less confident than their male counterparts. In addition, a study from consulting firm KPMG showed that this pattern follows through to when women begin entry-level positions in the workforce.
There are also independent bodies such as Women In Bio (WIB) that have initiatives like the Executive Women In Bio (EWIB), which is dedicated to promoting, empowering and elevating executive women in biopharma and the life sciences. Each year, EWIB announces a list of 20 to 25 women that are selected to participate in its Boardroom Ready Cohort, which is an award-winning executive development platform that helps fuel women’s participation on corporate boards.
Diversity in Leadership
As companies aim to foster greater inclusion and diversity, women remain a significantly underrepresented group within the diversity framework.
This is reflective of the sustained underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. A US census report from 2021 revealed that while women comprise half the workforce, they only make up 27 percent of STEM workers. Nevertheless, this is a significant improvement from 1970 when women only constituted eight percent of STEM employees (and 38 percent of the workforce overall).
The gap becomes more pronounced for women of color. According to a report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company, women remain underrepresented in executive-level positions, and at every step of the corporate ladder, women of color are underrepresented relative to white men, white women and men of color.
Despite the barriers and gaps, women have made extraordinary strides in STEM fields, including life science industries. There was once a time when women’s achievements in science were overshadowed, or simply taken away from them, such as in the case of Rosalind Franklin versus her male competitors James Watson and Francis Crick.
Eradication of gender stereotypes, leadership training and support programs as well as highlighting and celebrating women’s achievements in the life sciences will be key to helping support women as they pursue leadership roles to help drive scientific innovations.