The Grapevine

Biotech Industry Lacks Women In Leadership Roles

Women in the biotech industry are not on an equal footing with men when it comes to holding leadership roles. Representation of women is lacking in both academicians and founders of biotech companies. While the discrimation is more direct in some cases, there are also subtler ways to undermine women’s competency. 

For example, a study by Harvard Business Review highlighted a situation where men and women were approached differently when seeking venture capital from investors. Women were asked about the potential failures of their company and men were asked about all successes they foresaw for the company. 

Working Group Launched

Three women working in the field of biotechnology founded a group to address the glaring disparities. Entrepreneur Sangeeta Bhatia, former MIT president Susan Hockfield and retired MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins formed the Boston Biotech Working Group to throw light on lack of female representation.

The collaboration was made official in December 2018, with 30 venture partners, CEOs and academicians present at a formal dinner held at American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge.  

Survey of MIT Departments

Ever since the formalized launch of the group, they have extensively researched the positions of women in their field. A grant of $175,000 was awarded by the Sloan Foundation to analyze the number of women who have started or co-founded biotech companies. 

Biotechnology A researcher uses a microscope during a photo call at an aseptic room of the FCB-Pharmicell laboratory in Seongnam, near Seoul, June 28, 2011. Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters

They surveyed the number of academicians from seven science and engineering departments at MIT who went on to start their own companies from 2000 to 2018. During that time period, 250 biotech firms were started by current members of the departments. Of them, women founded 10 percent of the companies and comprised 22 percent of the faculty. 

The researchers hypothesized that if women in these departments had equally founded the same number of companies as the men did, there would be 40 to 50 more startups on the scene.  

Venture Capital Community Signs Pledge

As per the group’s finding, women’s representation in the existing number of companies was abysmal. About one in five leaders in small- or medium-sized biotech firms were women, while only one in seven leaders at larger firms were women. 

Boston’s venture capital community decided to find a solution by signing a pledge to ensure 25 percent of board directors are women by 2022. So far, Polaris Partners and F-Prime Capital have signed on, among three other firms. 

“Service on a board creates access to a network of investors, leading academic scientists, and other key leaders. It’s a door opener and a credentialer,”Amy Schulman, a Polaris partner and a current or former CEO or board chair of several Polaris-backed biotechs

, said. 

Boot Camp for Women

Bhatia and  MIT biomedical engineer Harvey Lodish plan to conduct boot camps for women interested in entrepreneurship and leadership, in which 40 female scientists are already on board. Also, the group has requested deans to allow female faculty to take time off from the university to familiarize themselves with finance and the nitty gritties of running a business..