Why Gender Diversity Lies At The Heart of Life Science Industry Success
May 22, 2017
When it comes to gender diversity in the life science industry, it’s easy enough to think the hard work has been done, or that the problem is fixing itself. After all, life sciences enjoy around a 50/50 split in its gender demographic, a statistic that already leaves many other sectors in its wake.
However, this pleasing gender parity starts to drop off at management level, with 60 men for every forty women at first and mid-level management before descending to a worrying 70/30 split at senior and executive level, and even further for board roles.
The truth is: the hard work is just beginning.
Why does it matter? Let us count the ways.
Leaving aside arguments of equality for equality’s sake, the argument from a productivity and innovation perspective is overwhelming:
1. Companies with women on boards and in senior executive roles perform better financially. Boards with more women onboard show significantly higher returns on sales, equity, and capital, with diverse boards exhibiting better decision-making, increased productivity and financial performance, reduced turnover, and better engagement.
2. Women often bring differing perspectives and management styles to the table, and this diversity of thinking plays a role in driving innovation. In a rapidly changing life science landscape, innovation is vital to meet future challenges.
3. With a skill shortage already biting and set to get much worse as the industry expands and the talent pool shrinks, underutilising women as a potent leadership force is a simply poor strategy.
While women may be coming into life sciences at an equal rate, they are not progressing to upper management in the same numbers. Many ambitious women may be deterred from pursuing a career in life sciences due to the poor ratio of women to males in senior roles, while others may transfer to other sectors upon not being promoted.
This equates to a loss of talent and training time that the life sciences industry can scarcely afford.
4. The MSCI Women on Boards study revealed other interesting cultural differences of women on boards which ultimately impact on the bottom line. The companies with more senior women are less likely to be involved in controversies such as bribery, fraud, and shareholder conflicts.
5. Equal female representation on life science boards would properly reflect the (roughly) 50/50 male, female split in the human population. If women are not equally represented on boards, then it can be argued that the board is not properly reflecting the needs of 50% of its employee and customer base.
What is causing the disparity?
A number of factors, both conscious and unconscious are driving this imbalance.
1. Many companies think the issue is resolving itself when the statistics do not bear that out.
2. Board members and senior executives are busy focussing on the tasks at hand, like getting drugs to market and dealing with the complex regulatory landscape. Actively working to improve the gender ratios on boards becomes a low priority- even for those companies who do realise that this change would bring positive rewards.
3. Unconscious bias plays a large role, with recruitment, training, performance evaluation, and promotion often unconsciously favouring male candidates.
4. Some women do not apply for senior positions for a combination of reasons, including concern that it will impact on their roles as mothers. Interestingly, in an EY survey, women respondents rated this concern as much lower than their male candidates did, which presents another example of unconscious bias.
Other factors affecting women’s decision not to apply for senior roles include a lack of mentoring support and a lack of female role models in the company.
What can companies do to reach gender parity in leadership?
Reaching gender parity is not about recruiting women to senior positions if they’re not skilled or talented. It is simply recognising, cultivating, and rewarding the talent that has always been there but has not historically been tapped into.
1. Set goals for female leadership and then religiously track them. Few companies that do have female leadership programs actually tracked their progress, while nearly half US companies surveyed did not have a program specifically for encouraging women into leadership, rather relying on their current leadership schemes to attract and develop men and women equally.
The data shows that this does not happen organically, and decisive action must be taken to address the imbalance. Some countries in Europe have set quotas for women in leadership with considerable success, with ratios approaching and exceeding 40%, and companies could set similar quotas or firm goals and track their progress.
2. Introduce strong mentoring programs for women. The EY survey showed that women value mentorship and networking as a path to leadership more highly than the male respondents, indicating that this is a powerful strategy to bring more women into senior roles.
The organisation could set a requirement that both the men and the women in your senior/executive leadership team are willing to mentor and sponsor talented female employees.
3. Scour your organisation for unconscious gender bias. Consider whether your job advertisements are gendered. Do they ‘describe’ men? Are they subconsciously written with male candidates in mind? The same goes for performance reviews and promotion opportunities. Make sure your hiring managers and leaders are all trained in recognising and preventing gender bias.
4. Consider your current schemes. Are your retention, incentive, and engagement schemes unconsciously more targeted at men? Does your company tend towards financial bonuses, rather than work-life balance bonuses such as flexible working arrangements, favourable maternity leave, and on-site health and fitness? Consider what you can offer to attract women to apply for these roles.
5. Find strong female role models in your organisation and make sure their stories are told. People often need role models to prove that things are possible, such as juggling parenting and career and getting to the top of a male-dominated organisation. Make the most of the successes.
Reaching gender parity in life sciences is urgent. Women must be represented equally at senior and board roles if the life sciences industry is to source the talent and diverse management skills it needs to thrive.