WorkingNation Executive Producer and Senior Business Correspondent Ramona Schindelheim interviews business leaders on how their companies are working to close the gender gap in the life sciences industry.
Despite holding nearly half of all the jobs in the United States, women remain underrepresented in STEM-based occupations on all career levels. Just one-in-four jobs involving science, technology, engineering or math was performed by a woman in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While there is still a long way to go, that’s a marked improvement from just 45 years earlier, when that number was just seven percent.
In the life and physical sciences field, the participation rate is much better — two-in-five jobs are held by women — but women still are finding it difficult to advance into leadership roles. That is not going to help close the skills gap in bioscience, and it is not going to help attract more women to the field, which is in need of thousands of skilled workers.
Over the next four years, the biotech industry, primarily clustered in Massachusetts, will need to fill an estimated 12,000 additional jobs. Although the number of biotech-related degrees is growing, colleges and universities are not turning out graduates fast enough to fill those jobs.
Business leaders now are actively encouraging young girls and women to consider STEM careers to help fill those future jobs. A conscious effort also is being made to keep women from taking their leadership skills to other industries.
“Women drop out of the (bioscience) pipeline before they get to more senior levels. Is it because they don’t see enough women in these executive roles to provide role models, and sponsors for more junior women, as they think about pursuing their careers?” Kate Haviland, Chief Business Officer for Blueprint Medicines believes that’s a key reason.
She’s worried about the leaking talent pipeline. “I mentor women here at Blueprint, and I also mentor some younger women at other biotech companies in the Cambridge area, as they think about developing their careers and which step to take. I think having that kind of connection with a woman who is in a C-Suite position, or an executive leadership position, really allows people to envision themselves there,” says Haviland.
“I’ve always loved science. It’s something I had an interest in at an early age.” When Haviland was growing up, there wasn’t as much of an effort to get women into the field. Her own role models were male members of her family,” Haviland said. “I had two different uncles, one was an oncologist and the other a medical geneticist. Both of them did research, as well as treated patients. They were very influential in terms of my thinking about how to pursue a career that would impact people who suffer from various diseases.”
Having a career that helps others is often cited by women as a reason they enter the science fields. Early on, Haviland spent time working in labs. “One of the things I realized was that although I love science, I’m a terrible bench scientist. It’s not what I’m good at. As I thought about where is it that I could specifically contribute in this industry, it felt like more on the business side.” Haviland graduated from Wesleyan University with a double major — biochemistry/molecular biology and economics.
“Our business is fully immersed in science and medicine. I think one of my strengths is thinking about how all the pieces connect together to be a part of building companies and moving successful clinical development programs so that we can actually get them to patients and have an impact on them,” said Haviland.
After spending a decade working for other bioscience companies such as Sanofi Genzyme and Sarepta Therapeutics, Haviland joined Blueprint Medicines two years ago. Blueprint Medicines is focused on developing new medicines targeting the genomic drivers of cancers and rare diseases. What its drugs do, in practice, is help other medications more quickly target rare diseases and cancer, and help limit side effects.
“We have eight executive team members and four of us are women. That is unusual, compared to other companies where I have been an executive team member,” Haviland tells me. She’s right. According to a MassBio/Liftstream report late last year, women hold just 24 percent of all executive level positions in the biopharma industry. They make up just 14 percent of all the corporate board positions.
“When you have women and men, and people from different ethnicities or ethnic backgrounds, and different experiences, I think what you get is strength in the variety of perspectives that really helps to foster new ideas and different approaches to problem-solving,” Haviland said.
“If you don’t limit yourself to one group, white males or, just male in general, you know, and you open the pool, then you have more access to better talent, the best talent. We think about that a lot here. We’re a rapidly growing company, and we’re in a very competitive job market here in Cambridge. I think the diversity of our executive team and the fact that people can see themselves in the executive leadership at this company as they join at the lower level, I think is incredibly important in terms of being able to get really great talent and attract them to Blueprint.”
Haviland credits the company’s CEO, Jeff Albers, who joined the company in 2014, with seeing the benefits of diversity on the executive team and at the board level. “If you value diversity, and you make that part of your priority set, you can absolutely achieve executive teams that are 50% women and 50% men. And I think that Blueprint is absolutely a testament for that.”
“Not only did he walk-the-walk in terms of building out an executive team that is very much representative of our workforce, he also has continued to look for the relevant opportunities for his direct reports, including myself, in terms of supporting leadership roles for women. A little over a year ago, he came to me and told me about this Boardroom Ready program.”
Boardroom Ready is run by Women in Bio, an organization of women working in biotech and pharma companies, universities, and other firms working in the life sciences area. Their goal is to help mentor women into leadership roles through coaching and networking. Now going into its third year, Boardroom Ready provides qualified WIB members with board certification training and help in finding board opportunities.
“One of the most impactful parts of participating in that program was meeting a group of really strong women executives from other companies, different geographies around the country, who were brought together to participate in this program. We stay in touch.”
Haviland believes it is important, as a female executive in the industry, to be more proactive, and take the time to help build these types of networks. “It’s a low percentage of women in these roles. But I think that’s where I feel that I have a lot of responsibility, and an amazing ability to help support some other women as they make their way through their own careers.”
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