Women in Biotech: A Long History of Accomplishment, and a Rising Tide of Recognition

LifeSci Search honours Women’s History Month, looking back at this year’s wave of industry self-assessment.

| March 30, 2022

Written by: Jennifer Phillips

Representation and Recognition

From the earliest advances in microbiology to the most recent experiments with multiomic diagnostics and the development of the leading COVID-19 vaccines, women have always been at the centre of innovation and progress in biotech. In 1905, Dr. Nettie Stevens published the first conclusive evidence that sex differentiation was chromosomally determined. But as a recent article notes, “Despite the importance of this work and [the publication of] over 6,000 peer-reviewed articles on the topic of sex chromosomes since, [Dr. Stevens’ book] Studies in spermatogenesis has been cited fewer than 100 times.”

That pattern is hardly a new one. The most famous example of overlooked foundational contributions might be Rosalind Franklin, whose critical work on the structure of DNA went unacknowledged for almost five decades after a disgruntled male colleague showed her unpublished data to Watson and Crick, allowing them to create their celebrated double helix model. The institutional factors that create those kinds of situations are still common today, as the numbers attest: women account for half of bioscience graduates and almost half of the bioscience workforce, but they hold fewer than one-third of all executive-level positions and make up fewer than 10% of the industry’s CEOs. 

There are reasons, though, to think that recent improvements in representation might not only persist but begin to ramify into more dramatic and permanent changes. For one thing, there has been a wave of successful biotech and biopharma companies with all-female leadership over the last few years. For another, we’re learning more and more about how to transform gender diversity from a box-ticking exercise into a permanent shift in institutional values and culture. The key appears to be using a broad-based combination of every available tool so that a complex system of entrenched systemic barriers – expectations, lack of mentorship, intersections with family life, gendered hiring networks – can be opposed by a new set of systemic enablers. These include stated company values, revamped hiring practices, stronger talent pipelines, and reliable reporting and monitoring systems. Companies that implement a wide range of pro-diversity policies see dramatic dividends, bringing twice as many products to market on average as less-diverse competitors. These kinds of concrete, evidence-based arguments for diversity are very slowly beginning to effect change, and every year sees a few more women step into leading roles. 

Women’s Health

There is another side to the relationship between biotech and gender representation. As part of the broader healthcare industry, biotech needs not only to hire women but to include them in clinical trials and design new products for their health needs.  

As of 2022, there remains substantial inequality in our industry’s investment in women’s health, with all-female founding teams in the life sciences receiving just 0.1% of UK VC funding between 2007 and 2018. All-male biotech and pharma teams brought in 5.8% of the country’s VC funding, with mixed-gender teams accounting for about 1.1%. Put otherwise, all-male teams closed 82% of VC funding deals in the sector. Internationally, that pattern persists, with companies focused on women’s health issues tending to receive VC funding multiple orders of magnitude below that offered to equivalent companies addressing men’s health issues. Those numbers are roughly in line with VC investment across all areas of entrepreneurship, as well: women-led startups attracted less than 2% of VC funding in the UK across the last decade. For Black women, that number is 0.2%.

As other industry leaders have noted, the challenge here involves both deliberate discrimination and – of equal or greater importance – the “one size fits all” to testing, drug discovery, and clinical trial recruitment that so often results in male-centric outcomes.  

Even so, we have seen real progress in women’s health despite the obstacles. A recent retrospective from the US Office of Research on Women’s Health points to four major achievements: (1) a shift in scientific focus from women’s health as narrowly reproductive to a whole-lifespan perspective; (2) increased knowledge about environmental determinants of health; (3) progress in understanding and treating postpartum depression; and (4) improvements in government policy concerning inclusive research practices. Those improvements led to women comprising more than half of all participants in NIH-funded clinical trials in 2018. So clearly, the impact has been substantial.

In all, the future, we hope, looks increasingly bright for women in bioscience. Issues of representation are being addressed broadly and multilaterally in ways they never have before, with real attention finally being paid to intersections of gender, race, and sexuality in workplace inclusion and equity. The numbers are improving, and we should expect outcomes in women’s health – and biotech innovation focused on their needs – to rise in response. 

Here at LifeSci Search, we are committed to assisting our clients in meeting their goals around representation and hiring equity. We’ve been proud to place dozens of women in top positions at leading firms over the last decade and will continue to prioritize women’s perspectives and women’s health as we look to the future. 

As always, we encourage readers to reach out with questions about hiring and placement in relation to our areas of focus, including gender and equity, approaching either Jennifer Phillips or Caroline Hunt.

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