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September 21, 2017

Few women in life sciences hold top-level positions, study finds

Men and women enter the life sciences in roughly equal proportions, but a gender gap emerges at more senior career levels with women filling a significantly smaller share of top posts, according to a new report from the state's biotechnology trade group.

The report from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and the executive recruiting company Liftstream examines the state of gender diversity in the Massachusetts life sciences sector. It found that while men and women aspire to reach "C-suite" executive and board positions at the same rate, women hold 24 percent of C-suite posts and 14.4 percent of posts at the board level.

Abbie Celniker, who chairs MassBio's board of directors, said the vice president and senior vice president level is "sort of the key pivot point, whether it be in attrition or people sort of resigning themselves to not push to go further."

"When women are at that VP or SVP role, getting beyond that is really where there appears to be that bias, potentially unintentional, but some kind of bias that reduces the opportunity of women to progress," she said. 

The gap persists despite women taking "more deliberate action" to scale the career ladder than men, the report said. Sixty-three percent of C-level women reported changing careers regularly to advance, compared to 21 percent of men at the same rank. At the vice president and senior vice president level, 38.7 percent of women and 12.5 percent of men said they "frequently ask for promotions." 

Celniker, a partner at Third Rock Ventures, said women "might think twice" before trying to climb the ranks of a company that lacks female leadership because they do not see a path for them to advance. 

"It's kind of a circular argument," Celniker said. "Women are sort of backing off because there's not enough representation there, but if they don't sort of push themselves forward because it's maybe an uninviting environment, we'll never see that balance. 

The report points to an "accumulation of issues" affecting senior women who could otherwise become the next leaders of life sciences businesses and offers a series of recommendations for companies. 

"A career of unequal treatment is seemingly compounded for these women as they are experiencing, relative to their male peers, multiple hindrances such as: restricted opportunities for progression, higher levels of bias, lesser pay rises, fewer formal evaluations, less mentorship/sponsorship, longer tenures, less likelihood of increased responsibility, and misalignment with company culture."

Forty-six percent of women said they'd reject an employer if it had an all-male board, all-male management, and they were interviewed by only men, according to the report. Roughly twice as many women as men -- 25 percent compared to 13 percent -- perceived the recruitment process at their companies as biased. 

"People want to work in a company where leadership is representative of the kind of diversity that they are claiming they would like to achieve," Celniker said. "It's not good enough to just have diversity in the overall numbers, but you need to demonstrate diversity in the leadership teams, in the boards, in order to demonstrate to women that they are joining a company where they will have opportunities to grow and develop." 

The report said that diversity and inclusion issues have a significant impact on a company's ability to retain and attract talent and said the "absence of a fair and balanced process is a major contributor to the continuing gender gap in the sector." It said companies should implement balanced recruitment and promotion measures, counsel and sponsor women in their careers, and help women reintegrate after parental leave. 

Celnicker said women coming up in the industry should also strive to advocate for themselves.

"We can create supportive environments for them, but mostly what we want to do is just make them aware that they need to be doing this," she said. "We can't put it all on the side of the employers. We want to make sure the women are pushing themselves as well, but it's in a balanced way."

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