Why aren’t there more women in Biotech? Gender inequality: unfinished business

September 16, 2022

Updated: February 19, 2024

Trailblazers, innovators, pioneers – these are the kind of people that you want in Biotechnology.

However, due to gender inequality and bias in the industry, many companies are missing out on these exact people. By looking straight past minorities and women in Biotech, a whole world of new ideas and innovation is lost.

Men, specifically white men, have dominated the industry since its very beginning, which is no secret to anyone. But that isn’t to say that women in biotech aren’t yearning for the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So, what’s gone wrong, why are women so underrepresented in the field and what can be done to shake things up?

What’s the holdup?

It seems absurd that an industry that has advanced so much throughout the years has totally failed to progress in terms of representation. Changes are slowly starting to happen each year, with the emergence of more and more women in biotech. Women now account for 49% of total employees, an improvement of 2% since 2020.

Despite this, according to BIO’s annual diversity reports, women in biotech only make up 34% of executive teams and 20% of CEOs, showing that there is still a clear-cut bias towards men in leadership roles. Women of colour represent a meagre 5% of C-suite positions. This is a sobering statistic, showing how these women are entirely missing from top-level roles – a problem that needs to change.

So, although there have been developments for women in Biotech, why are they struggling to make the leap from team member to team leader?

Unconscious bias

Initially, the number of men enrolling for education in the life sciences was significantly higher than women. This meant that when the hiring process rolled around, the talent pool was primarily swimming with men, making it extremely difficult to hire any women at all.

However, this is all rooted in unconscious bias. These are the views and ideologies people form about groups of people (such as women and people of colour) outside of their own conscious awareness, stemming from traditions and stereotypes that have been reinforced into our everyday lives without any realisation.

And one of the common stereotypes is that men are much more likely to have a natural flair for subjects like science and maths than women. Consequently, men are pushed towards these careers, whereas women are left behind.

Nowadays, it seems that both women and men are enrolling into these subjects at more equal measures, meaning they enter the field at a similar rate, both equipped with degrees and ambition behind them. But as a man’s career quickly skyrockets into a leadership position, the woman’s career comes to a complete halt.

Unlike companies with female founders or board members, boards made up of men choose to promote men over women as a result of this unconscious bias that makes them believe a man will be more competent for the role, although a woman could have just the same level of talent and expertise as her male counterpart, if not more.

The benefits of a diverse workforce

New Perspectives

Since the very beginning of Biotech, women have played a significant part in various groundbreaking medical insights and developments, even more so in recent years in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, these stories are stashed away and overshadowed by the achievements of male figures in the field, who benefit from their names stamped on patents and promotions.

Almost 77% of the 1.3 million NHS workforce are female. Also, women usually take the role of caregiver and decision-maker when it comes to important healthcare decisions on behalf of family members. So, it makes no sense to shy away from these voices that are so integrated into the world of healthcare. It’s a horrendously bad decision for business. Without women in high-profile decision-making roles, organisations are missing out on a whole new perspective, an incredibly informed perspective at that. As such, they’re limiting their ability to operate in the best way possible.

Also, in an industry like Biotechnology, where new drugs and treatments are constantly being researched and developed, it makes no sense only to have input from one voice. It’s not just men that use these drugs. Historically, products across all sectors have crashed and burned as they didn’t have the input of a diverse workforce, so their product failed due to not catering for everyone.

Improved Business Performance

More diverse teams bring a greater variety of perspectives and fresh ideas into a business. This leads to developing a workforce that is better equipped to tackle problems and create new innovative solutions. A study from Forbes even demonstrated that diverse teams deliver 60% better results and make better decisions in 87% of cases, which shows the magnitude of the impact fostering diverse teams can have on a business.

A greater number of women in biotech can only mean that biotech companies will be able to draw from the experience of a more diverse workforce, enabling them to make better, more well-informed decisions.

Elevated company reputation

Having a diverse workforce also boosts a company’s reputation, both internally and externally. When employees recognise that their company prioritises diversity and inclusion, they are more likely to feel valued and engaged.

By promoting diversity and inclusion, employees will have a great respect for the company and therefore will work harder and have an increased sense of loyalty, contributing to the organisation’s mission and goals. The resulting effect of this is a reduction in absenteeism and employee turnover, which can lead to coast savings for the business.

Customers and other external stakeholders are also increasingly demanding that companies pay attention to their social responsibilities, including their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Companies that ignore these responsibilities are often rejected by customers for whom this issue is of particular concern, resulting in a potential loss of revenue.

However, by clearly showcasing that your company considers these social issues in its business operations, you will attain the support of these people. Recruitment will also be made somewhat easier as potential employees are also looking for companies that align with their values.

This will have a domino effect of increasing the amount of women in biotech. If women are able to see that this is an industry in which they will be treated fairly and duly rewarded for their skills and hard work, they will be more likely to pursue a career in this field.

You have to be able to think differently to solve a previously unsolved problem.

Reshma Kewalramani, Chief Medical Officer of BIO member Vertex
Increased likelihood of business success

Introducing different backgrounds into your company allows creativity to flourish, brings new ideas to the forefront of possibility, and allows different opinions to be heard. Diversity and inclusion are key, especially in an industry like Biotech that relies on risk-takers and innovators. Reshma Kewalramani, Chief Medical Officer of BIO member Vertex stated, “you have to be able to think differently to solve a previously unsolved problem“.

Undoubtedly, an inclusive workforce is paramount for the success of Biotech, so if your organisation ignores this, you’re putting yourself several steps behind.

What can be done to increase inclusivity in Biotech

As discussed, there is no doubt that providing space for women in Biotech is not just beneficial, but absolutely fundamental. Without giving women an equal place at the table, you’re losing out on so much, such as fresh ideas, new perspectives and high levels of talent.

Diversity and Inclusion is not a box-ticking exercise

Currently, the future is looking up for Biotech, with 70% of companies listing diversity and inclusion as one of their top priorities as of 2020. Although, despite listing it as a ‘priority’, this doesn’t mean it’s constantly being followed through. It does appear that women are holding more Board seats. However, as leading companies previously only had around 8% of women holding a seat anyway, it’s easy to increase this percentage and use it as a box-checking exercise. Women want to be rewarded for their skills, talents and hard work, not just be used as a tick in the diversity box.

Foster a Culture of Inclusivity

Hiring a diverse team isn’t enough on its own, for employees of diverse backgrounds to truly feel like they belong at a company, there needs to be a culture of inclusivity. This can be achieved through implementing policies to prevent discrimination and bias, offering training on recognising and addressing unconscious bias and cultural sensitivity, and establishing groups for employees from underrepresented communities to connect and offer support.

For women who have children that they need to look after, offering them flexible working through a hybrid or remote work environment will be especially beneficial for helping them achieve a healthy work life balance.

Taking these steps will go a long way in creating a supportive and inclusive workplace environment that women of all backgrounds will feel significantly more comfortable working in.

Reevaluate your hiring process

It needs to be an active process to encourage more women and minorities to join your company. By consistently failing to hire and promote women to leadership roles, you’re showing potential candidates that you’re not the company for them. State your dedication to diversity in your company values, and revamp your hiring process so that you’re fully committed to seeking out an inclusive, intersectional and talented workforce that represents the entirety of Biotech, not just the select few.

Setting an Example for Future Female Biotech Leaders

Young women need to be shown that they can make it to the top of the biotech industry, which requires the success of female leaders in the sector to be fully demonstrated and celebrated to set examples for them to follow. This will be crucial for achieving gender equality in the industry. More examples of successful female leaders will inspire women of the next generation to not only pursue a career in the field, but to aspire to reach the very top by entering executive positions and even founding their own companies.

It may take a while before true gender equality is achieved in biotech, but by setting examples of successful female leaders now, you can help boost the rate of women entering the field with high ambitions to reach that goal faster.

How we can help

Recruiting bright, clever minds in Biotech can be tough. But that’s why we’re here to make things simple. With strong commitments towards diversity and years of experience doing what we do, we’ll help you build a diverse workforce filled with the best talent of today, so that you can pave the way for the big Biotech companies of tomorrow.

Already having placed many women in high-profile, leading roles, we’ll utilise our fully-developed network of specialists in Biotech to match your company with talented professionals.

We’re not looking to slow down our mission towards diversity anytime soon, or ever. The work is far from done, and we want to be a part of it – we’ve got unfinished business.
Abstract Women in Biotech

Published on 16-09-2022