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Diversity agenda still lagging in the biotechnology market

Authored by Karl Simpson

October saw the release of the new World Economic Forum’s report on the Global Gender Gap. Once again, the list of top 10 places to be a woman in business seems to be dominated by the Scandinavian countries.

The arguments for greater diversity in the boardroom are frankly well rehearsed and well understood. There is a considerable population which feels that diversity is greatly needed at the boardroom level, for reasons of business logic and societal fairness. Some believe in quotas, others not. While many still remain to be convinced of the arguments and perhaps inhibit more rapid progress towards the diverse boardrooms required to be representative of the societies that these companies serve with their products or services.

The sense, and statistical evidence, that we need greater levels of diversity at the boardroom level often gets clouded by this gender related debate, as depicted in the WEF’s report. Yet, diversity is a far greater and broader issue than one of simply diverse gender. In many cases, we are simply failing to get enough women into senior executive roles, let alone CEO positions. But it is other minorities that also need to be given suitable opportunities to flourish in the boardroom environment. In recent weeks, Christopher Baily of Burberry, most recently their Creative Director, was announced as the succeeding CEO to take over the helm at fashion firm Burberry. Why is this significant? Well, because Christopher is openly gay and becomes the only current FTSE CEO who is such. While this is ‘encouraging progress’, it is glacially slow and a stark reminder of the deficient diversity of our corporate boards. It is a point which consistently alarms me.

Having just attended a sequence of pharma and biotech conferences both here in Europe and in the US, it is desperately disappointing to see minorities so under represented – and I despise the word minorities as it implies some inadequacy and that is not a position from which to achieve parity or equality. To sit in a vast room of pharma and biotech executives and to see so few women means that systemically there is something fundamentally wrong. Now, possibly global pharma has started to get its act together on the topic of diversity and inclusion and in the coming years we’ll see more diversity in their boardrooms. In recent weeks for example, we have seen Belén Garijo appointed CEO of Merck Serono and we look forward to greater frequency of these diverse appointments in pharma. Yet, on a pure anecdotal level, the diversity among the biotech community remains depressingly thin in comparison.

What will change this is the consistent push to raise awareness of the importance of diversity. It is the changing of attitudes and it takes time to do this. It is possible though. We should take encouragement from other areas of the life sciences sector where there has been a change in mind-set. Most acutely, this is being felt in the sweeping change towards an accepted notion that plugging the gap in innovation deficiency must be done through lowering the draw-bridge and allow ideas to flow in and out of companies from a global network of collaborators. Pharma used to think it was a good idea to approach innovation in a totally vertically integrated way. Now, it seems the consensus is that the minds of many are greater than the few. Perhaps this will bring new stimulus to drive diversity and in particular bring increasing levels of diversity to the biotechnology sector which itself does not demonstrate the improving demographic diversity seen in its big pharma collaborators.

To substantiate this biotech inadequacy, Liftstream analysed 44 of the biotech companies which have completed an IPO in 2013 to the end of November. Of these 44 biotechs, only 3 of those have a female CEO. Of the 44 companies, 14 of these have no female representation on their executive teams. The concentration of the majority of the other female representatives are in the roles of General Counsel, Regulatory Affairs and Human Resources, which suggests that the natural succession internally for the role of CEO is unlikely to come from these positions. It is this statistical analysis which gives a clear sense for the lack of diversity at the top of the biotech companies. We must change this – and soon.

For more information on diversity please join our Linkedin group Human Resources Diversity in Pharma & Biotech 

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