Study: Women hold just 1/10 biotech board seats

Not surprising, but still dismal: A new Liftstream study of 177 publicly-listed biotechs found just 10.9 percent of board seats are occupied by women and just 8 percent had a female CEO.

Businessman sitting at conference table in conference room with hands clasped boardroom

A new study of 177 publicly-listed biotechs found just 10.9 percent of board seats are occupied by women. Perhaps more shocking, 98 percent of the companies had a male chairman of the board of directors, not a chairwoman.

The report, titled ‘A Public Reality for Women in Biotech Boardrooms,’ was conducted by the executive recruitment firm Liftstream. It looked at biotech companies that underwent an initial public offering (IPO) between 2012-2015.

There were some small causes for optimism. The report found 57.2 percent of the biotech boards surveyed now have at least one women director. That’s the first time Liftstream has reported a number greater than 50 percent (the firm published a similar report in 2014).

For women and men battling for equality, that’s small consolation. If progress continues at this pace, the authors of the report estimate it will take a further 40 years to reach gender parity in the biotech boardroom.

Mike Rice, a founding partner of LifeSci Advisors and a recent advocate for women in biotech, said the inequality is plain the see within the industry.

“The findings of this study reflect the realities of the challenges of women in the life sciences industry today,” Rice said via email. “Forty years is too long for us to achieve balance — we must all have a hand in accelerating that timeline.”

Beyond the social consequences, inequality negatively impacts the business. On average, the diverse biotech boards delivered a 19 percent increase in share price post-IPO. Their all-male counterparts, on the other hand, presided over a 9 percent decrease. All told, diversity on the board equated with a 28 percent net gain in stock performance, the study found.

Is there a lack of eligible females to fill these roles? That excuse will soon be obsolete. Both Rice and Kate Bingham, a managing partner at SV Life Sciences, believe the boardroom should be a launching pad for women to enter the C-suite in greater numbers.

To achieve this, they founded the Board Placement Initiative (BPI), which highlights qualified women suitable for biotech board positions. In collaboration with Women in Bio, they also created the Boardroom Ready Program, with an eye on improving executive-level diversity.

Bingham explained the approach via email:

The Boardroom Ready Program, sponsored by LifeSci Advisors and Women in Bio, is designed to accelerate the process of getting high quality women into the C suite.  By giving these already well qualified women boardroom experience, we expect to radically increase the number of women in leadership positions in biotech companies worldwide. My boards and CEOs all value diversity in the boardroom, as women help the process of calm and rational decision making, so increasing the pool of qualified women available to join boards is a key priority.

Consistent with this, the Liftstream report found just eight percent of the biotechs surveyed had a female CEO.

The study lands at an interesting time. On Saturday, an estimated 3.3-4.6 million people throughout the United States marched in defense of women’s rights and equality. More women than men now have college degrees. Yet the board and executive suite remain massively skewered towards men.

Liftstream’s report is a timely reminder of how dire the situation, but it did hint at some new strategies for engineering diversity.

When VC directors were replaced by non-executive directors the diversity of the board improved. More women were appointed to boards directly after the company floated on the public markets and companies that didn’t have a dual chairperson and CEO performed better on gender equality.

Such patterns may be helpful as the industry works to reshape its gender dynamic.

Photo: Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury, Getty Images