Women in Biotech: Highlighting Leaders & Major Achievements

Less than 10% of leadership roles in biotech are held by women. Learn from the women in biotech leadership roles and their accomplishments.

| January 12, 2022

A Long Road to Leadership

Diversity is a critical driver of both performance and innovation. For example, when women make up a third or more of the Board, companies are 48% more likely to outperform competitors financially. And, firms with multiple diversity and inclusion initiatives bring roughly double the number of new products to market every year as their less-diverse peers. Those benefits accrue from a broader perspective – from a more inclusive company culture to attracting a wider talent pool.

Yet, there remains an under-representation of women in biotech and pharmaceutical leadership, making up less than 10% of industry CEOs and just 31% of all executive-level positions. Moreover, those numbers don’t line up with degrees granted in relevant fields (roughly 50%) or the overall biotech workforce (47% women), which means the problem is specific to advancement and hiring. Most experts describe the cause as a “labyrinth” of interconnected operational and social factors, from professional isolation to hiring bias, sexual harassment, and gendered norms for office behavior. 

There are clear steps that companies can take to combat and even fully remove these kinds of structural barriers – supporting your hiring process with outside expertise is among the most reliable. 

My focus here is on one of the most powerful forces for gender equality and the future of innovation in the field: the women already working at the top.

Profiles of Female Leadership

Emma Walmsley – CEO at GSK

Emma Walmsley has been one of the UK’s leading businesswomen for more than a decade and a half, spending much of her early career at L’Oréal. She was hired to head GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer healthcare division in 2011, reportedly after a single business lunch with then-CEO Andrew Witty. After increasing consumer sales by 38% over six years, the company appointed her Witty’s successor, making her the first female CEO of a major global pharmaceutical company.

Her work there has been transformative. She overhauled the company’s leadership, dramatically restructured its pipeline, and narrowed its focus to just four areas. She is currently overseeing GSK’s split into two companies: a consumer health branch that will merge with Pfizer’s consumer health division, and “New GSK,” a pharmaceutical company that already has 20 vaccines and 42 drugs in development – many of them potential best-in-class options. 

Rosamond Deegan – CEO at OMass Therapeutics

Ros Deegan has an exceptional track record on drug discovery and an industry-leading history of bringing products to market. She was appointed CEO of OMass Therapeutics two years ago, after a two-decade run of orchestrating significant deals for the largest players in international pharmaceuticals. Many of those transactions took place under her leadership at Bicycle Therapeutics, where she served as President and CBO and cemented her reputation as one of biotech’s leading names in commercial and corporate development as well as strategy and early-stage funding.

OMass brought her on shortly after the company re-launched with a new focus: the use of proprietary structural mass-spectrometry technology to develop novel therapeutics targeting specific protein complexes.

Reshma Kewalramani – CEO and President at Vertex Pharmaceuticals

Reshma’s rise to CEO and President of Vertex made her the first female CEO of a major US biotech company. A luminary of the best hospitals and universities in Boston, Massachusetts, she was a nephrologist and transplant specialist before moving into biotech when she joined Amgen. She served in various top roles in R&D, establishing herself as a leading name in clinical development before moving to Vertex as their senior vice president for global drug development. In the years since, she assumed increasing authority, serving as CMO and then taking the CEO position. Her accomplishments at the company have included major successes with their cystic fibrosis drugs, two of which – Orkambi and Symdeko – received FDA approval in 2018. Another drug, Trikafta, received approval the following year. 

Yan Zhang – CEO at Mission Bio

Yan Zhang is a globally recognized figure in multi-omics. Her current role as CEO at Mission Bio is, in her words, “the natural transition from the technical founder to sales experience.” After ten years with Thermo Fisher Scientific, she arrived at the young company, where she provided executive leadership to their reproductive health and microarray businesses. Her expertise in commercial development for genetics and genomics products was earned through work with Affymetrix, NuGEN Technologies, and Molecular Devices. She brings an unusual breadth of experience: clinical, diagnostics, public health, forensics, strategic marketing, and team-building. 

Mai-Britt Zocca- CEO IO Biotech

Mai-Britt Zocca is the Co-founder and CEO of IO Biotech, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company developing innovative, immune-modulating cancer therapies based on their T-win technology platform. After a successful IPO on NASDAQ in November of this year, IO Biotech continues to go from strength to strength under Mai-Britt’s leadership.

An experienced executive with many IPOs under her belt, Mai-Britt started her career in research before moving into the industry. After gaining her Ph.D. from the University of Copenhagen, she has dedicated her career to the field of Immuno-oncology. In addition to running a successful biotech company, Mai-Britt holds board positions at both Dansk Biotek and Valo Therapeutics.


For more information, please reach out to Jennifer Phillips, Head of Business Operations, UK at jphillips@lifescisearch.com.

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