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Leveraging the Talent of Women in Life Sciences and Health Care

By Nan S. Langowitz

A look at what companies can do to reduce bias and maximize talent

Women in technology fields historically have been underrepresented, and this is no less so for women in the life sciences, health care, and biotech industries. But, would it surprise you to know that women are catching up quickly?

In 2008–09, women earned nearly 40% of the biomedical and medical engineering degrees in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics(1). Not quite half, but certainly much improved from bygone days. Similarly, the percentage of women attending medical school is now nearly equal to that of men. It can no longer be argued that women lack the technical and scientific expertise required to be active players in the health care and life sciences arenas. But, how do they fare in the workplace? Matching the pattern in many industries, we find that women comprise roughly half of the employee base but are visible in far lower numbers in managerial roles. According to the 2007 Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association E.D.G.E. in Leadership study conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton, 34% of midlevel life sciences company managers and just 17% of senior executives are women(2). This study recommended that companies need to do more to attract and retain talented women, including taking a merit-based approach to career advancement and compensation as well as using metrics to track progress on talent retention of women.

What might companies do differently? Surely merit is always the core of how companies evaluate and promote individuals. According to a 2011 report on women entrepreneurs by the Kauffman Foundation, the impact factor of published scientific research is identical among female and male scientists. In other words, the science they do is equally valued. Similarly, patent productivity in the life sciences industry is nearly identical among men and women. Yet, analysis of patent productivity by Professor Kjersten Whittington at Reed College points to the possibility that a “fatherhood premium” is active in providing contacts and opportunities to male researchers as compared with their female counterparts(3). Men appear to have more commercialization and career advancement opportunities as a result of an implicit positive frame that associates fatherhood with stability, drive, and reliability.

On the opposite side of that bias, women seem to experience a motherhood penalty that frames their parenting as a tug away from their potential focus on career, and seems to result in a protective or distrustful instinct against offering them new opportunities or challenges at work. We know that in many life sciences companies there are dual career tracks, on the science side and the managerial side. Even if women are experiencing a subtle bias on the science side, there should still be opportunity on the managerial side. Yet, the statistics noted above paint a different picture. Wouldn’t all of these organizations say they were using a merit-based metric? Undoubtedly, yes. So what’s going on? As has been found in numerous other contexts, it seems that merit may be in the eyes of the beholder. That is, inherent and subtle cultural cues and implicit bias in organizations may influence the advancement of talented women (and perhaps others who inherently differ from the norm).

What can organizations do to erode the potential for implicit bias?

  • First, they should look to organizational mechanisms. Review any mechanisms your organization uses to allocate resources, e.g., lab space, opportunities for travel to conferences, access to developmental training, to be sure that there are no hidden criteria for allocation. For example, some HR systems have a check box in performance dashboards in which managers note an employee’s willingness to travel. Are you sure all of your managers are actually asking employees about this? Perhaps they are simply assuming who is available for travel. A manager’s good intent of wanting to protect an employee with young children from traveling may actually be harming the employee’s opportunity to develop, and eroding the company’s investment and long-run return from the employee. (As Professor Whittington’s research shows, this tends to harm working mothers more than working fathers, but it is an issue to be considered either way.) Or, consider how task force team assignments are done. Do managers sit together over coffee and think about “who would be good for this product development assignment?” Do they tend to choose the usual suspects, and are all of those chosen typically male? Such a system can create a self-fulfilling cycle, the male employees get the opportunities and the experience, thus they have the chance to perform well, and they get the chance to be chosen as good for the assignment based on that past product development experience.

  • Second, they can monitor advancement. Evaluate the level of data your organization tracks on the advancement of women in the organization. Do you know where your women employees are and what they contribute? Are there any discrepancies in their patterns of advancement compared with their male counterparts? As with so many other issues, it’s hard to make progress without knowing where you stand and measuring how things may be changing. A baseline to use might be to see where your company stands in comparison to the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association benchmark noted above. Leading companies also have found that making an explicit connection between the advancement of women and senior executive evaluation and compensation is a must to giving the policy teeth. It signals to senior executives as well as to the rest of the organization that leveraging the talent of women is a priority for all.

  • Third, they can use networking and mentoring. Consider the level of support available to aspiring women employees in your organization. Are there visible women senior leaders to serve as role models? Is there a network through which women can exchange information, tips, and opportunities? Are mentors readily available and accessible to women employees? Companies with strong track records for women’s leadership and advancement support their women employees with affinity groups, mentoring opportunities, and professional connection.

One example of a company that already has put many of these suggestions into place is Abbott, the only health care and life sciences company named a Top 10 company on the National Association of Female Executives list in 2011. The company has particularly focused on moving women into roles with profit and loss responsibility. Abbott is tracking the number of women in senior level roles both overall and on a country-by-country basis, and has used its women’s affinity group to support and develop professional skills to develop and advance women leaders. Twenty-seven percent of Abbott divisions are led by women executives, and 16% of its corporate executive leadership team consists of women, meeting or exceeding the HBA study benchmark. Overall, the number of women managers at Abbott has increased by 90% during the past five years. In addition, Abbott’s affinity group for women partners with the companywide mentoring program to ensure that women employees interested in mentoring are connected not only within their local context but also globally.

Not all life sciences or health care companies are large multinationals, however, and anecdotal data suggests that women scientists and managers more readily advance in small- and medium-sized firms. One explanation is that in smaller firms, with limited resources and bureaucracy, demand for good ideas, energy, and valuable contribution trumps social bias or politics. Growing companies should be aware of the potential for organizational process and culture to develop that might erode their ability to leverage the talent of women. When companies are in high-growth mode, leaders have a tendency to focus on product delivery, financing, and simply making the trains run, and can easily forget to focus on building an organization that values diversity of talent. Once size overtakes intent, it’s easy to lose the transparency and connection that were built in when the firm was small.

For growing firms, it’s essential to consider how you will build your team and organization in order to best tap diverse talent and leadership. Again, looking to organizational mechanisms, holding individuals accountable, and finding ways to create communication and connection are key levers for success.

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The author is Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at Babson College and served as the Founding Director of Babson’s Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership.

1. National Center for Education Statistics Homepage, last modified on September 17, 2012, http://nces.ed.gov/.

2. “HBA E.D.G.E. in Leadership Study,” Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, accessed September 17, 2012, https://www.hbanet.org/hba-edge-in-leadership-study.

3. Kjersten Bunker Whittington, “Mothers of Invention? Gender, Motherhood, and New Dimensions of Productivity in the Science Profession,” Work and Occupations 38(3) 417–456, accessed September 17, 2012, doi: 10.1177/0730888411414529 .

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