Female chief executives remain exceedingly rare in the drug industry, accounting for less than 10% of biotech's top leaders — a "shockingly, ridiculously low" number, said one of the few women heading a biotech, Veracyte's Bonnie Anderson.
A recent BioPharma Dive analysis of 180 leading biotechs found just 15 were led by women last year. Slow progress in improving this imbalance has put pressure on the industry to more seriously address the issue, several executives said in interviews with BioPharma Dive. No small part of the demand for more action falls on biotech's primary trade group, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
"I need more from BIO," said Helen Torley, chair of BIO's diversity committee and CEO of Halozyme Therapeutics, when asked in June what she plans to tell the trade group's new chair. "I want more people, I want more support. If we want to make this happen, it's like any marketing campaign. It needs to be relentless."
BIO, which also counts pharmaceutical companies among its 1,100 members, declined to say how much it invests on its diversity efforts. But leaders said the group recently decided to more than double the diversity committee's budget.
Two years ago, BIO set goals for the industry to reach 50% female representation among management and 30% representation on company boards by 2025. No goal was set for the percentage of female CEOs.
The top ranks of the industry remain a ways off from those targets. About one in four executives in leadership at the largest 50 drugmakers by market value are women, BioPharma Dive's review found. Twelve of those companies had executive teams with women accounting for more than a third of the spots, and only one biotech, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, was led by a team in which women outnumbered men.
Even so, Torley is "absolutely confident" the industry will hit BIO's goals.
So far, BIO's main initiative has been the BIO Boardlist, a website where industry execs can search through listings of diverse candidates for board seats. Currently, there are 47 women on the list, according to the trade group. It has yet to lead to a direct placement, but Torley added that board searches tend to take time.
The list gives a concrete answer to executives who say they would like to hire a female candidate but cannot find one, Torley said. Other leaders across the drug industry called the effort a good start, but said it's not enough to create meaningful change by itself.
The list idea is "just one piece of the puzzle," said Laurie Cooke, CEO of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association. "It is a much more complex issue of who gets on boards and why."
To that end, BIO has compiled dozens of tipsheets and presentations about diversity, covering topics such as networking, building an inclusive company culture and how to conduct a pay equity audit.
And while a myriad of groups, including Cooke's, are working to improve gender diversity, BIO can prod the entire industry forward with its wide-reaching influence.
"BIO is in a position of significant responsibility to help make that happen," Veracyte's Anderson said, who joined the group's board last month and hopes to push for further action.
A partying past
Gender diversity remains a persistent challenge across much of the corporate world.
For biotech, public scrutiny intensified in 2016 when Bloomberg reported on a party featuring female models that took place during the sector's major annual gathering, the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco. That spurred two well-known female professionals in the life sciences industry to pen a highly circulated open letter, demanding better from their peers.
Nearly two years later, in June 2018, a party coinciding with BIO's annual conference featured topless dancers with biotech company logos painted on their bodies. The event was condemned as tone-deaf and sexist, spurring then-BIO chair Maragnore to threaten expulsion from BIO of any company sponsoring the event in the future.
Still, the long-running party was back again at this year's BIO conference in Philadelphia, albeit in a more tempered manner, reportedly featuring a PowerPoint presentation instead.
Looking back, Veracyte's Anderson said the parties and subsequent public attention could actually have a positive effect by spurring the trade group to react.
"It was such a provocative, ridiculous thing to hit the media, broken by a female reporter at Bloomberg, that in some ways, it has probably been more of a catalyst of awareness than any other event we could talk about," Anderson said.
Parties aren't BIO's only diversity issue. The trade group's highest ranks have historically looked similar to the industry it is trying to reform: white and male.
Two white men, Carl Feldbaum and James Greenwood, have served as BIO's president since its founding in 1993.
The group has yet to elect a non-white BIO chair, and Rachel King is the only woman to serve in the role. Her term ended in 2015, and three white men have succeeded her since: Ron Cohen, John Maraganore and Jeremy Levin.
After being named BIO's next chair last month, Levin listed a range of priorities for his two-year term in an interview with BioPharma Dive. He didn't initially mention diversity or gender representation, instead discussing pricing policies, out-of-pocket costs for patients and digital tools, among other topics.
When then specifically asked whether gender diversity would feature in his plans, Levin responded positively, calling it a priority. "At the end of the day, this will change," he said, referring to the comparative lack of women in top roles across the industry.
Others said Levin's answer illustrates a key problem slowing significant change — prioritization.
"That is the profound problem we have. Everyone wants to believe it is a natural priority, but if it is not on your list, it won't be," Veracyte's Anderson said.
Levin said BIO is making "an intense effort to promote and ensure diversity," emphasizing the substantial boost to the diversity committee's funding since he became chair.
"This is an effort I am passionate about and where we have room to improve," Levin said in a July 25 statement to BioPharma Dive.
Lagging at the highest levels
Other industry leaders have been underwhelmed by the pace of progress.
"The progress I've seen is mostly that we're talking about it now," said Lisa Suennen, a prominent health venture capitalist and managing director at law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. "My caution is at the rate we are going, I'll be long dead by the time the numbers change fundamentally. It's just too slow."
That's not necessarily an exaggeration — the World Economic Forum has forecasted gender economic parity across industries in North America as more than 150 years away due to slow progress over the past decade.
"I don't think organizations are understanding the size of the funnel that they need to actually make real change," said Christine Armstrong, an associate director for AbbVie's Pharmacyclics unit and president of the San Francisco chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association.
Armstrong added that the one-by-one, handpicking of women into leadership roles is both "too slow and too small."
The top ranks of the drug industry reflect that criticism. In 2017, Emma Walmsley became the first female CEO of a big pharma company when she took the top spot at GlaxoSmithKline.
More than two years later, she remains the lone female CEO among the 25 largest drugmakers by market value, but will be joined in April 2020 when Reshma Kewalramani is set to lead Vertex.