Biotech Voices

The right mix matters in biopharma leadership

Breaking the biopharma glass ceiling isn’t just a moral issue; it’s a shareholder issue. McKinsey reported in a recent study that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to generate financial returns above the industry average; those in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to do so.

The right mix of experience, perspectives and backgrounds is also a patient issue. Whether it’s choosing the right endpoint for a prospective therapy or marketing a product in a way that will enable physicians and patients to access the right medicine at the right time, more companies are beginning to understand the need to diversify their ranks and groom leadership teams as diverse as the clinicians and families they’re trying to reach. It’s good business and it’s good for patients.

There are biopharma companies making incredible progress in the diversity and inclusion space. Others want to diversify and are asking for help to broaden executive and board searches outside of what are often homogenous personal networks. That’s why the Biotechnology Innovation Organization — the world’s largest biotech trade and advocacy group — is launching a new industrywide initiative called The Right Mix Matters.

Based on my conversations, a critical mass in biotech already knows that we have a pipeline problem. We should be fastidious in our efforts to promote more women, minorities and LGBT executives up the ranks. Many of us in C-suites and board rooms do feel a sense of urgency: More institutional investors and venture capitalist are looking at leadership diversity as a factor in where to put capital. Frankly, this needs to be a wake-up call for our sector.

Nationally, only seven to nine percent of CEO positions at biotech companies are filled by women, according to national surveys by Liftstream. It still happens that when I go to networking events with my fellow CEOs, I’m often the only woman in the room.

Like almost every female physician of my era in Scotland, I received my medical training during a time when it was assumed we would quit our jobs or work part-time when starting a family. As a doctor in training, I lost count of the number of times I was asked to make a cup of tea for everyone while my male colleagues talked about their career paths with the consultants.

I became a doctor because I care deeply about the welfare of patients, and became a rheumatologist because I’ve always been attracted to the most confounding areas of medicine. I discovered helping patients suffering from vexing conditions almost always required more than even the most determined doctor’s best efforts. The interventions of the rheumatologist, nephrologists and other specialists might be life-saving, but it was the physiotherapist, wound nurse and occupational therapist who made patients’ lives livable. This recognition that diverse backgrounds produce the best solutions has lived with me ever since.

My career took me to the United States for a role in the biopharmaceutical industry in clinical development. I put in for a transfer on the commercial side, whereupon the head of marketing and sales informed me, “You are female, Scottish and an M.D. You’re just not the right fit.” Fortunately, that company eventually got new leadership, and I found a champion in the C-suite who saw something in me. He sponsored for a commercial leadership role even though I didn’t yet have all the experience of the “perfect” candidate. Without a champion willing to open the door to that first crack at broader leadership roles, many women and minorities in corporate America languish in middle management in perpetuity —unable to move up and into the C-suite.

But I did move up. When I became a candidate for my first CEO role, I hired a coach to help me increase my effectiveness as a communicator. I possessed that familiar feminine trait of failing to take enough personal credit for my role in the successes of teams I led. My coach helped me understand that interviewing with boards is not the time to be modest. He was right. I learned how to better sell my credentials, experience and abilities, becoming one of the fortunate few to crack the glass ceiling in the biopharmaceutical industry.

As the centerpiece of BIO’s effort, BIO Boardlist went live this month. It’s a searchable online database of diverse talent where executives can nominate promising talent and where search committees can find leadership candidates that meet their business needs. The tool was deployed by the high-tech industry in 2017 in the wake of a firestorm ignited by the controversial writings of a Google engineer that sparked an industrywide discussion about sexism. Now, BIO is bringing this tool to the biopharma sector.

We already have nearly 50 outstanding, pre-vetted candidates who are searchable in BIO Boardlist. Our job now is to add more highly qualified, diverse leaders to the database. Once we do, BIO Boardlist will be especially helpful for smaller and emerging biopharma companies that do not yet have a robust human resources function or the means to hire executive recruiters. BIO Boardlist can help companies identify, lift up and include diverse executives with leadership qualifications and aspirations.

BIO also launched a second resource — a diversity and inclusion toolkit. We have pooled together the best resources from successful programs across BIO member companies. Companies will find specific HR templates that can be downloaded and scholarly pieces and training courses on such topics as unconscious bias, mentoring and sponsorship.

As a practicing rheumatologist, I learned that it can take a village to give patients a life worth living. Working my way up the ranks to the CEO’s office in biopharma, I have discovered the same often holds true to develop a medicine worth taking or a clinical program worth funding. If you’re leading a biotech company and want to do right by your consumers, investors and shareholders, the right mix really does matter.


Dr. Helen Torley is CEO of Halozyme Therapeutics in San Diego and chairs BIO’s Committee on Workforce Development, Diversity and Inclusion. Biotech Voices is a contributed column written by select Endpoints News subscribers.


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