Making Room At The Table: Tackling Gender Diversity At The Executive Level In Healthcare

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Making Room At The Table: Tackling Gender Diversity At The Executive Level In Healthcare

By Katie Litwin | August 8, 2019

While several industries struggle with providing equal opportunity for women at the executive level, I have focused my efforts in the Life Sciences sector, particularly in biotechnology/pharmaceuticals. This article will be a part of an ongoing thread in which I continue conversations with executive women to get their perspectives on the issue of gender diversity in biotech, and related matters, so that we can further the dialogue. It is through conversation that we hope to maintain awareness and inspire action.

As a recruiter in biotech, I regularly speak with executive teams on their hiring plans. A consistent piece of feedback I receive is that these companies are seeking to increase their diversity. There have been significant strides made over the last few years, but one of the most glaring issues I see is a lack of female representation at the executive level. As someone who connects women to these opportunities, I believe that to tackle the problem, it is essential to understand this issue more holistically. I believe it’s useful to provide a platform that offers all women an opportunity to share their perspective and individual experiences to understand the challenges better. To make progress, it’s critical we acknowledge the problems, provide potential solutions, and share advice for women that are moving up the ranks in the biotech industry — particularly those who aspire to play a leading role in companies at the executive level.

According to recent reports from 2017 analyzing gender diversity within the sector, representation of women at the management-level hovered at around 20% while women accounted for just 7% of biotech CEOs.[1] While this report homed in on Massachusetts, using data from MassBio to analyze roughly 70 companies and over 900 participants, these findings are representative of a more significant trend in the field that limits women’s ability to lead at the top.

I find this discouraging not only because I regularly hear of the uphill battles women face, but, given the conversations I have, it’s my impression that there are many women at every level in the industry who feel the same way — leaving a residual feeling that despite working hard, these women’s highest ambitions cannot be reached. We risk impacting the overall success of the industry and one in which women represent a significant fraction. One of the primary questions I address from senior female executives is ‘what is the composition of the leadership team and board?’ Across all levels, if there is no female representation, this is perceived poorly and frequently results in a woman declining the position to avoid a potentially exclusionary work environment – one that runs the risk of inhibiting her development. The result is cyclical where no senior women join these companies, and the pool of interested candidates winnows down to only men.

How will we ever hope to create change if we are not creating environments that are encouraging women to participate? I think the answer must start earlier on in a woman’s career.

“I think there are not enough opportunities for women early on,” said Paula Soteropoulos, CEO of Akcea Therapeutics, who vocalized a similar sentiment to many of the women I spoke to on this topic. Another Senior Executive and Board Member agreed that women are often not as equipped with the right skillsets to effectively compete compared with their male counterparts. Several more shared stories of being overlooked for an opening when competing against a man for the same opportunity.

A report from McKinsey and Company observed the same, finding while “women make up 63 percent of line roles; at the C-suite level, women comprise 29 percent.”[2] This particular study focused on North America, looking at 33 healthcare companies. Additionally, it surveyed more than 10,500 employees at 11 different companies and interviewed ten executives in North America. This finding is consistent with similar estimates putting women around 55-60% of the entry-level workforce.

One executive woman I spoke with painted a picture of this very struggle, “It’s a catch twenty-two,” she said. “We (women) have to prove ourselves before we can escalate, but through our career, we’ve got our head down trying to produce, so we can’t network. And, we’re running and running and running, while it feels like the person next to you doesn’t have to do that.” It’s a common theme. Many women described the experience of witnessing men given opportunities that then allow them to learn the skills on the job. While women generally must prove themselves in that function before they have a chance to fill the role. The result? Less diversity at the top.

Whether the dilution of women moving from entry- to executive-level is due to institutionalized bias, leaving hiring in the hands of biased decision-makers, or some other factors, the problem continues to exist – and it has a negative impact. From another female executive interviewed, I learned that a male candidate was selected over her because there was a concern that she could one day decide to have children and need time away from the role.

This isn’t just thwarting the efforts of the woman denied the opportunity, but also could harm others who may doubt their abilities and feel compromised due to personal choices they make as they progress in their career.

Several women I spoke with, vehemently discredited the argument of childbearing hindering career progression – describing their experience juggling children and parental responsibilities as they moved up the ranks. Shabnam Kazmi, the Chief Business Officer of Shepherd Therapeutics, said that while these factors can account for more “logistics” at certain times, having a family is not an inhibitor. She emphasized a piece of advice: women should find companies that will support them as they reach for goals, both in and outside of work.

In looking at why companies should invest time and energy into diversity, the benefits are not just limited to public perception or fulfilling a “quota” for a diversity requirement. Diverse businesses quite literally perform better.

One study analyzed 177 biotech companies that undertook an IPO between 2012-2015, observing pre- and post-IPO board composition. On average, it found diverse biotech boards delivered a 19 percent increase in share price post-IPO – contrasting all-male boards, which had an average result of a 9 percent decrease.[3] There is also a plethora of research that points to the business benefits for a diversity of thought and the commercial value of inclusive work environments. With this in mind, it’s hard to understand what the rationale would even be for companies to dismiss opportunities for increased diversity. Although, as we have seen with other historical cases of diversity, de facto segregation can be, at times, the toughest to combat.

What Next?

Now that we’ve identified some of the problems and why a solution matters, the challenging question becomes, “what can we do about it?”

The perspectives I got were multi-faceted and will continue to emerge in future articles. However, several actions women can take to tip the scale and break down institutional barriers began to emerge as common themes.

Without a doubt, the most common thread I heard is that women in senior positions need to do a better job of supporting others working their way up. Many described a situation in which women at the top become the “lonely few,” and, almost as a mode of survival, they become socialized to look out for themselves. As a consequence, they forget to reach out or advocate on behalf of other women.

“Women need to privately and publicly validate each other more,” Kazmi said. It’s this type of networking – where a woman in a position of power vies for another’s capabilities, thus creating another seat at the top – that paves the way for other female leaders. Theresa Matkovits, the Chief Development Officer at Matinas Biopharma, added, “You need a sponsor to get your first director-level role. Once you have that, it’s so much easier going forward.”

The other piece is on awareness and training. As another senior executive and Board member noted, “Most women think of networking as a peripheral activity; rather than thinking about networking as a strategic core competency that can be critical to unlocking the next opportunity.” There are many stories across the industry of women who didn’t even consider themselves as a potential candidate for a Department Head, CEO, or BOD until someone validated that they should believe it.

Women need the right support to equip them with the knowledge of what to ask for, when to ask for it, and how to go after those unique opportunities that will allow them to climb.

There are a growing number of organizations attempting to formalize these networks and prepare women, but merely joining these groups is not enough to lead real change. These groups can be best supported and enhanced by a continuous circle of outreach and support on every side. This needs to come from the women at the top, the women trying to make it there, and the associations creating an adequate link between the two groups. This holistic approach is likely to be more effective than a shotgun approach at the individual and collective level.

As more leaders take on a supportive approach towards women rising the ranks, we will begin to create a network that advances younger, ambitious women into the pool of talent that exists for senior-level positions – historically dominated by men. One executive, I spoke with agreed and added, “We need to both maximize the opportunity to expand the network for hiring or at least have a hiring process that’s more transparent than ‘oh I know someone for this job’” when considering a candidate for an executive or board-level position. If more women support each other and can get in on the networking that has often been dominated by men – more women will start to have a seat at the table.

Today, we aren’t doing enough. Some estimates indicate it could take until 2036 to reach 30% female representation on boards, and until 2056 to achieve gender parity.[4] A large portion of this slow progress is because it requires significant time to disrupt cultural norms in hiring at the executive level. And, while this effort can be more gradual, the more awareness we build, the more likely we are to work towards a solution.

This continual feedback loop is a two-way street for both the stakeholders that make up the industry as well as the women in it. With this in mind, I was left with a few sharp words of advice to other women as they begin to seek out the next step in their career in biotech. What stood out to me was the need for women to be advocates of their success.

“It’s something I realize as I look back…” Shabnam Kazmi describes. “It’s a recurring theme, I think, ‘why wasn’t I pitching those projects in the first place?’ I wasn’t seeking new things. I would say [my advice would be] ask for a lot early. Take more risks.”

Soteropoulos described an example from her own experience as a mentor working with another woman to review her professional resume. “She was frustrated. She felt like she wasn’t getting recognition on her CV. When I looked at it, the way she had wrote it was not direct, and I told her that. Women need not feel so shy about what their accomplishments are. Be forward!”

Looking forward to the state of the biotech industry, it goes unstated that there is substantial work to be done to expand the network of women at the top. What’s clear to me is we, as women, need to continue to consciously look out for each other and to do a better job of promoting ourselves and our accomplishments. Longer-term strategies such as providing women with the education and skills to go after new challenges and holding one another accountable to make unbiased and honest decisions in hiring will continue to steer us on the course to develop the next generation of trailblazers in the industry.

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[1] Stasiak L, Simpson K, Opening the Path to a Diverse Future, Liftstream, 2017

[2] Berlin, Gretchen, et al. “Women in the Healthcare Industry.” McKinsey , McKinsey & Company, June 2019,

[3] Preston, Juliet. “Study: Women Hold Just 1/10 Biotech Board Seats.” MedCity News, MedCity News, 24 Jan. 2017,

[4] Stasiak L, Simpson K, Opening the Path to a Diverse Future, Liftstream, 2017

About the Author
Katie Litwin

Katie Litwin is an Associate Vice President within Life Sciences in New York, specializing in working with professionals in Regulatory Affairs who are driving the next era of drug development.

Her network is made up of individuals who work on innovative approaches to the world’s most pressing diseases to deliver therapies and cures to patients everywhere.

Katie’s ability to identify the highly-specialized backgrounds required for a career in Regulatory Affairs have translated to an impressive track record of placing senior-level executives in this field.

What makes GQR’s Life Sciences team stand out the most is their sincere passion for science in each company they are involved in working with. The team’s ability to build long-term relationships with experts in the space have made them genuinely knowledgeable about where the best talent is located.

Katie is a dual citizen to the U.S. and Canada. Outside of work, she is passionate about traveling, outdoors and trying new restaurant and recipes!

Connect with Katie to speak about your dream career or where you’d like to take your team next!


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