The vast underrepresentation of female physicians in biotech

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published November 30, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Women are significantly underrepresented in leadership roles in biotech, with less than 6% as biotech CEOs and only 14% as board members.

  • There are multiple factors contributing to this imbalance, including pipeline issues, lack of transparency in hiring/promotion processes leading to unconscious bias, lack of access to networks and sponsors, and biotech's demanding work culture.

  • Progress to correct this requires buy-in from the top levels of biotech companies to implement changes like unbiased hiring practices, flexible work policies, and more.

Women in medicine, when pursuing nonclinical careers, often turn to the biotech industry for positions where they can utilize their medical training and expertise. Unfortunately, the same gender gap issues that plague the leadership landscape in healthcare and academic medicine are present in biotech as well.

Related: Academic medicine falls short when it comes to female leadership

Disparities affect company performance

Despite making up the majority of those employed in the life sciences, women continue to be vastly underrepresented in leadership roles within the biotech industry. A 2021 report on the biotech industry from executive search firm Bedford Group/TRANSEARCH revealed an abysmal statistic: Less than 6% of biotech CEOs were women, and only 14% of board members were women.[][]

The leadership disparity in biotech is, in fact, worse than in the rest of the business world overall.

Nearly 8% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies in 2020 were women, according to the Women CEOs in America report.[] (This was lauded as a historically high level at the time.) This report was issued by the Women Business Collaborative in conjunction with Ascend, C200, and Catalyst.[] 

This underrepresentation of women persists even as studies show that gender-diverse leadership results in superior business performance. 

A report by McKinsey & Company found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the 4th quartile.[]

Other research has shown that diverse organizations are also more successful at recruiting and retaining talent: Companies with higher levels of gender diversity, in particular, who also have human resources policies that focus on gender diversity, have been linked to lower levels of employee turnover.[] Researchers have also found that women are more likely to believe an organization is fair when women are highly represented in top positions.[] This inclusivity is especially valued by employees of color.

What’s behind the imbalance?

As is often the case, there are a number of factors contributing to this imbalance. Even though more women have entered the field of medicine, fewer women in medicine pursue careers in biotech than their male colleagues, so there may still be a pipeline issue.

Given that the majority of executive boards at biotech companies are comprised of men, outdated biases may still pervade many biotech boardrooms and inhibit the promotion of promising female leaders to executive positions. 

Recruitment and promotion processes often lack transparency, opening the door to unconscious gender bias. Women also face disparities in access to influential networks, sponsors, and opportunities to develop skills needed for leadership roles.

"Having applied for leadership positions at biotech companies myself, I can attest to this lack of transparency and the frustration of being turned down for a promotion, often with no reason given."

Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP

I have also had the experience, on multiple occasions, of being offered—and expected to take—less in base salary for a leadership position compared with what male candidates have been given for the same position.

It must also be said that the biotech world is notorious for its lack of work-life balance and outdated insistence on frequent travel (sometimes as much as 75% to 100% for medical-director positions and above), even after many other industries seem to have taken the work-from-home lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to heart. Women are often caregivers, and biotech’s around-the-clock work culture is not optimized for caregivers.

The field also struggles with retention when women take career breaks for child-rearing. Support for flexibility and reentry programs is limited but crucial for addressing this issue. 

The gender leadership gap also perpetuates itself through a scarcity of visible role models and champions to inspire young women in the field. 

"Having more women at senior levels is vital for recruiting, retaining, and promoting female talent, but the low numbers create a negative cyclical effect."

Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP

Closing the gap

So what can be done to bridge this gender divide? Companies must critically examine their organizational culture, policies, and procedures with regard to gender diversity. They should implement training on mitigating unconscious bias in hiring and reviews. Leadership criteria and job postings should be assessed to ensure they do not unintentionally deter women applicants. Focused efforts to recruit and develop female talent are needed, as are mentoring programs and networking groups for women.

Above all, biotech must foster inclusive and flexible environments where women at all levels can thrive. Enacting family-friendly policies, including viable and realistic work-from-home options that make use of all the conferencing technologies now at our fingertips, and destigmatizing career breaks, can help greatly. 

"Progress requires buy-in at the very top, and thus male advocates are crucial. Women, too, must be empowered to network and help each other up the ladder."

Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP

The immense contributions women can make to scientific innovation and leadership are clear. Concerted efforts by individuals, companies, and the industry as a whole are required to ensure women are equitably represented and able to shine at the very top of biotech companies. The results will benefit not just women themselves, but scientific advancement and patients worldwide.

What this means for you

The stark underrepresentation of women in biotech leadership means female physicians face inequitable challenges in advancing to executive roles. However, by spotlighting your talents, utilizing advocates and sponsors, and helping pave the way for other women, you can become a pioneer shaping a more equitable future for women leaders in biotech.

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