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CAN THE BOARDROOM'S HISTORIC GENDER BIAS BE OVERCOME?

The public condemnation of LifeSci Advisors' employment of female models at its now-notorious cocktail party during the J.P. Morgan conference of 2016 led to the Damascene conversion of founding partner Mike Rice. Turning his back on sexist social events, Rice formed an alliance with venture capitalist Kate Bingham after she co-authored a public rebuke to the biotech communications advisory firm. He is now committed to promoting women's representation in biotech boardrooms

Scrip caught up with Rice and Bingham to find out what LifeSci Advisors has achieved since it gave up recruiting women to entice male conference attendees to its parties and embarked on a mission to get them into the boardroom instead.

Kate Bingham 

KATE BINGHAM, MANAGING PARTNER, SV LIFE SCIENCES

 

The outcry around the party prompted Rice to call Bingham and ask for help to turn the situation into a positive. Bingham got behind the effort, and that call led to LifeSci Advisors sponsoring Women in Bio's Boardroom-Ready Program, which is entering its third year now. The initiative selects 20 female applicants to take part in a five-day training course that gives them insights and networking opportunities to help prepare them for non-executive roles.  

It also resulted in LifeSci Advisors setting up its Board Placement Initiative, a free service to match boardroom-ready women with non-exec positions in life sciences companies. "As a case study of starting with a stroppy letter and seeing what the consequence is, I would say this has gone way beyond what I could have imagined," Bingham toldScrip. "I have to say this has been an astonishing experience and not one that I really would have expected."

Nevertheless, the fact that the initiative set out to get at least 15 women placed on boards in its first year but has only got to 13 in a year and a half is testament to the size of the challenge.

With women making up less than 15% of biotech boards, according to Liftstream and MassBio's 2017 reportOpening The Path To A Diverse Future, the gender inequality challenge is clear. Rice and Bingham agree that this isn't just a problem for women, it's a problem for companies too. "It's very clear that when you have a diversified boardroom and a diversified C-suite, the performance of your stock is better, return on equity is higher, return on EBIT is better," noted Rice.

"I would like to see all my boards have multiple women and for it to be absolutely accepted that you have better decision making if you have greater diversity of views around the board table," declared Bingham. "We need greater acceptance that the sort of 'boys' clubs' where boards are all people that go golfing together on Saturdays are less likely to make good decisions than ones where you have greater diversity of thought."

From Ignorance To Driving Change

Rice confessed that he had "never realized how big an issue this truly is" but that he came to "recognize that there is definitely a problem from the standpoint of diversity on these boards and in the C-suite." Having seen the light, he was determined to do something that would result in actual change: "I'm really all about showing results."

Since LifeSci Advisor's Board Placement Initiative was launched in the summer of 2016, it has succeeded in placing 13 women on company boards. The company has more than 700 resumés of female potential board candidates. "The resumés are outstanding. One of the big surprises to me is that those women aren't on boards already," said Rice.

"I think [the scheme] has been really good," said Bingham. "If you look at the number of people who've been placed since it's been going, it's fantastic. And I've spoken to people who've been on the boardroom-ready program and they are just delighted with it."

Boardroom Barriers

According to Bingham, there are two major barriers to better female boardroom representation. One is women not being "pushy" enough: "It's the classic story – a man looks at the job spec for which they are qualified for 50% of the task, and they say 'yeah, I'll go for it'. And a woman will look at the job spec and say 'no, I'm not qualified'. This scheme [the Boardroom Ready Program] helps give them that experience." The other is that women don't always have the same visibility as men.

Rice agrees about the latter, noting that with many early-stage biotech companies, their investors "have a big say as to who’s going to be sitting on those boards initially. VCs pick those who’ve been successful in the past, a lot get recycled, and a lot are men. It's repetitive behavior, using men who built successful companies on the boards of new ones. And there aren’t a lot of women partners in the VC community." He also pointed out that "companies stick with an internal network that they know, among others CEOs or CFOs or board members, which tend generally to have been men. It’s the old networking culture. We’re trying to change that dynamic."

Cynthia Smith, chief commercial officer of ZS Pharma, which was acquired by AstraZeneca PLCin 2015, was placed on the board of Nivalis Therapeutics (subsequently acquired by Alpine Immune Sciences Inc.) via LifeSci Advisors' Board Placement Initiative. She also participated in the Boardroom Ready program. She agrees that one of the biggest issues is that there are far more men in the biotech investment community, as well as at the CEO level, so it “tends to be a little bit harder for women to break into that network.”

"LifeSci Advisors are good because they do a lot of publicity around the initiative, and they are very well connected in biotech community," she noted.

“I haven’t found in my career that being a woman has been a problem in getting into a C-suite position but I think for both CEO and board positions everyone is looking for someone who has been in that spot before. So if there aren’t a lot of women it just makes it harder.”

Pat Andrews, CEO of Boston Biomedical, who was placed on the board of GlycoMimetics Inc.via the Board Placement Initiative, concurs. “There is a belief that you should have board experience before you go on a board. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Historically it’s been dominated by men, that’s why there’s such a small percentage of women on boards, and if you have to have board experience it keeps women off boards. So it does help to have an initiative helping women get on boards: it breaks a cycle.”

Pat_Andrews 
PAT ANDREWS, CEO OF BOSTON BIOMEDICAL AND BOARD MEMBER FOR GLYCOMIMETICS

 

Andrews, who had been “working very diligently” to try and get on a board without success before LifeSci Advisors contacted her on referral to add her to its database, thinks that sometimes "the things that have made women strong and rise through an organization – performance among them – they may have done in a way that is not as valued by the people making the decisions. They may have been more collaborative, they may have shared credit more – and there are studies suggesting that men are given opportunities based on potential but women have to show they’ve already been successful doing it.”

She believes unconscious bias can act as a barrier. "It’s not just women who are stopping themselves getting ahead. There’s a lot of unconscious bias out there about what makes someone good on a board or in the top leadership position. For example, one of the things boards will say all the time is 'we want someone who can be a good collaborative board member' – but then they seek to fill it with CEOs who have always done exactly what they individually want to do, rather than be a good collaborative member of the team. A lot of women who get to the top have done it in a more collaborative way. That’s a generalization and it’s not true of everyone, either men or women, but I do think there’s a perception that some women don’t show that clear authoritative visionary leadership because they’ve worked in a group, leading that group forward rather than being out in front. That works against women more than it does men.”

Breaking Into The Ranks

One thing that the Boardroom Ready Program may help with is breaking that chicken and egg cycle of needing boardroom experience to get a non-exec role. “Every time you do an interview for a board, the first question you have is 'have you been on a board before?'," said Smith. "Now I could at least say 'no, but I’ve participated in this training initiative to give me familiarity with what sitting on a board would be like'." She thinks that introducing more women to the boardroom through such programs will change the dynamic. She also thinks that board diversity could be enhanced if the generally accepted criteria for board positions were expanded to other C-suite experience beyond CEO and CFO roles, which are the most heavily male-dominated.

Andrews sees the Board Placement Initiative as a better way for women to break into boardroom ranks than using traditional search firms. "What makes it different is that it recognizes that many people in the database do not have prior board experience but still have all the skills that one would want to have to be on a board. I think being more targeted has made it more successful. It’s pretty hard actually to have a contact at an executive search firm because really they’re only interested in you when you are a match for a search they’re currently working on.” With search firms' databases already populated with men with boardroom experience, women have a harder time getting noticed.

Both Andrews and Smith agree that LifeSci Advisors' schemes were key to helping them secure board positions, and Bingham believes that such experience can also help women advance their careers further: "Getting that experience as a non-exec to have different experiences and decisions and challenges on boards where they are not employees…sets them up much better to move up the career promotion ladder to bigger C-suite jobs and to become CEOs and chairmen of companies," she said.

The Future?

So what's the outlook for senior women in biotech now compared with a few years back? "I think it's better. There's nothing like putting a spotlight on an issue for people to think about it," commented Bingham.

But Andrews noted that at one of her interviews she was told, "We don't need another woman on our board: we have one already." This kind of attitude suggests true and widespread recognition of the importance of diversity is some way away.

"Are we there yet? No way," Bingham said. "Is there greater recognition of the issue and some decent initiatives to enrich recruiting processes in order to insist there's good representation on shortlists? Yes, I think there are."

She concluded: "We probably need a lot of people to continue to shake the trees, and I think things will get better."


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