• Estimated read time: 5 mins
  • Date posted:17/12/2020
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By Alice Wearn


The life science industry is under pressure like never before to diversify their workforce, particularly for senior leadership positions. This comes following the number of reports revealing the disturbingly disproportionate number of women in leadership positions in the life sciences compared to men.

According to a recent diversity survey, women in the life sciences make up only 10 per cent of boards and only 20 per cent of leadership teams, despite half of the entry-level positions being filled by women.

While the industry is slowly paving the path towards a more gender diverse and inclusive future, there’s still a way to go. The life science industry has unique barriers to overcome before gender equality is achieved.

This article is focused on gender equality in the life sciences, but more specifically the lack of female leadership in the life sciences. It discusses these issues, but from a broader perspective on diversity and inclusion.

Unconscious bias

We attract and get along better with people that are similar to us – who have similar interests, backgrounds and experiences. What this does in turn, however, is unconsciously reject those individuals who are different or diverse in favour of those that reflect us more.

When it comes to hiring, this unconscious bias results in a workforce that is of a similar make-up, with little to no diversity.

This is an issue because it means that a candidate’s ability to do the job gets discounted in favour of similarity, effectively diminishing diverse candidates from consideration.

From my conversations with an Executive Director of Technical Operations, they stated:

“Hiring managers often rely on candidates they know best – people like themselves. What we need to do is diversify the decision-makers at all points of the process where bias may exist.”

So, while it’s all well and good setting diversity and inclusion targets, if life science organisations fail to change their mission, values, and mindset then nothing will ever change.

By diversifying hiring teams, organisations can ensure that unconscious bias is eliminated from the hiring process. If organisations set a diversity target to hire 30% more women by the end of the year, then they must ensure that they have female representation on the hiring panel.

The year that changed everything

This year, with so much uncertainty due to the global pandemic, workplaces have been turned on their heads. While the life science industry is booming with the race to develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, at the same time, hiring freezes have led to diversity targets falling short.

McKinsey reported recently in their 2020 Women in the Workplace study that women are more likely to be laid off or furloughed this year. They even predict that the global pandemic could set women back half a decade as they consider leaving the workforce for good. Organisations losing female leaders’ risk unwriting the years of progress towards gender equality.

But the issue doesn’t stop there – once women are in the life sciences, they are not progressing into senior leadership positions.

Anjana Narain, CCO, stated that:

“Inclusion of women in the middle management space is 50/50, but we can’t just stop there. We need to take it to the next level – we need to see that sort of representation at board/C-Suite level”.

While the gender balance in middle management is a positive sign that proves some women are rising up the ranks, the industry as a whole still has a way to go to encourage more women even further up the ladder.

Organisations must take responsibility for ensuring adequate and fair progression opportunities for female staff. This starts with mentoring and development programmes that prioritise continuous development. This must be driven from the top-down, with leadership teams taking accountability and committing to real progress.

Diversity AND inclusion

Organisations are beginning to realise that diversity isn’t enough. The new conversation is around inclusion.

Anjana Narain also stated:

“There are subtle differences between diversity and inclusion. While diversity is the hiring of people with different experiences, ethnicities, gender, etc, inclusion is allowing them to bring different perspectives to the table and actively listening to them, rather than just hearing them. At the moment, there’s a tendency to bring diverse candidates on and then suppress them to fit the culture.”

Hiring for cultural fit is important to any organisation – employees that align with the culture of the organisation are more likely to produce better quality work. However, an overreliance on cultural fit results in a workforce composed of the same personality types and cultural backgrounds.

And when diverse candidates do make it through the hiring process to employment, organisations have a habit of turning them into the cultural norm. These diverse individuals have unique opinions, perspectives and experiences that get smothered.

There needs to be an emphasis on inclusion – on letting employees harness their individual strengths, use their voices and embrace who they truly are. An inclusive atmosphere will prevent women from being suppressed.

Looking towards the future

Diversity and inclusion have gone from simply being ‘the right thing to do’ to now being an asset to any business. It bolsters an organisation’s reputation, increases productivity and drives profitability.

For more information on the business case for diverse teams, read our blog: The Ultimate Business Case For Diversity In The Workplace.

With the benefits becoming more and more visible, we should start to see organisations developing a diversity hiring strategy and targets. But it doesn’t just stop there.

Anjana Narain raised a good point in our conversation:

“It’s very good when they hire diverse candidates, but what they need to look at is retaining them there. Organisations may have a hard time retaining their diverse talent because they are forced to conform to the existing company culture. It’s company culture that still needs to be looked at”.

A Site Head I spoke to recently supported this:

“We still see a corporate culture that does not fully support and drive gender diversity (either conscious or unconscious) and still sometimes resorts to a Boy’s Club Culture”.

So, while setting gender diversity targets is a positive step in the right direction, organisations need to go one step further than this.

Diversity training for the entire workforce must be provided, an emphasis should be placed on female leadership programmes and active monitoring of female talent pipelines.

But to eliminate this “Boy’s Club Culture” once and for all, male employees must get involved in the mission too. Diversity training should be implemented across the entire organisation with the remit to gain buy-in from all staff, regardless of their gender.

The Site Head went on to state:

“Positive role models allow women to not only dream of being successful in the industry, but see that these achievements are possible. We need to continue taking meaningful steps toward supporting one another’s growth by sharing experiences, learning from others’ diverse backgrounds, and instilling ambition in young women with a passion for the life sciences”.

We need to inspire the next generation and we can only do this by starting conversations. Female leaders in the life sciences have a responsibility to ensure their experiences and stories are filtered down the organisation and beyond.

Conclusion

The life science industry is more gender diverse than other STEM industries, but there’s still work to do and this battle has no end in sight.

Life science organisations must commit to diversifying their workforce and allowing more women into leadership positions. Not only is it the moral thing to do, but it’s also highly advantageous to the industry.

At the end of the day, it’s up to individual organisations whether they want to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce. Those who are reactive, rather than proactive, will be left behind.


For more life science insights…

* Fraser Dove International is a specialist executive search firm operating exclusively in the Life Science industry. Passionate about people, we take pride in helping exceptional life science organisations source the talent they need to design, manufacture and distribute life-changing drugs, treatments and devices which transform and save patient lives.