Women In Pharma and Biotech Are Pushing Boundaries, But Still Face Barriers

On International Women’s Day and the start of Women’s History Month, I’m reminded of the many significant contributions women in pharma and biotech have made to advance healthcare for all. 

Consider women like Patricia Bath, the laser scientist and ophthalmologist who revolutionized cataract surgery; Katalin Karikó, whose breakthrough research on mRNA was instrumental in COVID vaccine research and development; and Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the CRISPR gene editing mechanism with the potential to revolutionize treatments for a variety of medical conditions. 

Women are also making tremendous progress when it comes to representation at all levels in these fields. Nearly 60% of all US pharmacists today are female, according to the most recent Census data. Yet gaps still exist, and there is still work to be done. 

What percentage of pharma and biotech executives are female? 

In 2021, 28% of executives at the top 20 pharmaceutical firms were female, a 35% increase from 2018, according to a national study of women, diversity and leadership within healthcare, conducted by the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, the University of Massachusetts and global healthcare learning and development firm Innovara.

Biotech firms appear to be making progress even faster. In 2021, 35% of executives at the top 21 firms were female, a growth of 40% from three years prior. If promotion and hiring trends continue at that rate, the study’s authors note men and women should have equal representation within leadership positions in biotech by next year. 

By 2021, the study notes three biotech firms — Biogen, Organon and UCB — and one pharma company — Eli Lilly — had achieved gender parity, while several others followed closely behind with female executive representation at 40% or higher. (I was happy to note my former employer, AbbVie, was among them.) However, there is still substantial room for improvement, especially when it comes to women in leadership within these areas. 

As the study notes, there is a difference between equal representation and equal power. Further analysis by the authors shows white men still hold the majority of executive positions that involve making decisions related to “money, people, production, and commercialization of product.” They represented 64% of executives in these positions at pharma companies and 68% of these roles at biotech companies in 2021. Female executives at these same companies were more likely to have roles in human resources, legal counsel, and public relations, while men tended to have more roles related to operations, finance, and manufacturing. 

How well are women of color in pharma and biotech represented?

While we’ve made tremendous gains, there are still plenty of opportunities for improvement. 

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s 2021 report found just 7% of employees and 4% of executives at primarily US-based biotech companies were Hispanic, while just 6% of employees and 3% of executives were Black. Considering nearly 19% of the US population is Hispanic and nearly 14% is Black, according to 2021 Census data, there is still a disparity between the demographic that benefits from advancements in medicine and biotech and those who make decisions about their development. Indigenous populations made up an even smaller percentage; 2% of executives were Native American or Alaskan natives, while 0.5% were Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. 

In addition to being underrepresented, female leaders are leaving companies at higher rates, according to a recent report by McKinsey and Lean In. The survey of more than 400,000 people over seven years found women are more likely to face resistance and microaggressions, such as someone questioning their judgment, as they try to advance. 

Compounding the issue McKinsey refers to as the “broken rung,” where only 87 women and 82 women of color are promoted to management roles for every 100 men, women are leaving their companies at higher rates in recent years. Nearly 30% of women who responded to the survey in the past year reported they were considering reducing their hours, taking a less-demanding job or leaving the workforce altogether. They are frustrated by having too few opportunities to advance, not having enough flexibility, or seeing a lack of commitment to DEI within their organization.

What can pharma and biotech firms do to improve diversity, equity and inclusion? 

Over the course of my career at AbbVie and Abbott Laboratories and other positions I’ve held in the healthcare field, I’ve seen strategies that work and others that are well-intended but fail to make meaningful improvements in this area. 

The most successful DEI initiatives often start with stated goals. For instance, Biogen vowed to increase the number of women, racial and ethnic minorities, veterans, people with disabilities and people identifying as LBGTQ+ in director-level positions by 30% in 2021, according to its annual DEI report. Like many companies today, it uses data to track its progress and holds its teams accountable. 

Building partnerships with advocacy groups and educational institutions with higher populations of underrepresented groups can help companies build a more diverse pipeline of candidates as well. The Genentech Scholars Program and Pfizer’s scholarship program with the Morehouse School of Medicine are both good examples of this. 

While many pharma and biotech companies have established programs to measure and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, there is a fourth element to consider in the DEI equation: belonging. 

Fostering a culture of inclusion and advancement to nurture the talent you have is just as important as having diverse recruiting and hiring practices. As part of its commitment to DEI practices, Organon has employee resource groups specifically for women, Black leaders, Asian and Hispanic employees, LGBTQ+ individuals, and more.  

Many other organizations have mentorship programs that aim to provide women with opportunities to network and learn from others in leadership positions.  

While these initiatives are certainly encouraging, we also need to remember that as high-achieving women in these fields, we all share a responsibility to pave the way for the next generation. As the CEO of a technology-focused life sciences firm that specializes in diverse clinical trial recruitment, I’ve made it my mission to work toward a more equitable future. It gives me great joy to speak with pharmacy students, aspiring leaders, and entrepreneurs whenever I have the opportunity. Wherever you are in your career path, there is power in sharing your experiences and making connections with others you can support or learn from along the way. 

If you are responsible for hiring, consider reaching out to colleges, universities and advocacy groups you may not have worked with previously. Take the time to meet with other successful women, including women of color in pharma or biotech who can offer their insight and perhaps strong referrals from their network. We may still have a lot of work to do to achieve equality in our industry, but every new connection, new hire, and promotion brings us one step closer — and we can only get there if we work together.