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Number Of Women Leaders At Biotech Companies Lags — But Is Improving

Edie Stringfellow, director of diversity and inclusion at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and Paula Soteropoulos, CEO of Akcea Therapeutics. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Edie Stringfellow, director of diversity and inclusion at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and Paula Soteropoulos, CEO of Akcea Therapeutics. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 4 years old.

If you look around the offices and labs at most biotechnology companies in Cambridge, Boston or Worcester, you'll see roughly an equal number of men and women. At least in the lower- and mid-tier jobs.

But enter the executive office suite — and you'll see a marked difference. According to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio), only one of every top four managers is a woman.

In the boardroom, there's on average just one woman among every 10 board members.

When it comes to racial and ethnic diversity, the problem largely stems from not enough minority candidates entering biotech in the first place. One report finds recipients of doctoral degrees in life sciences in the U.S. in 2015 were 74.9 percent white, 11.4 percent Asian, 7.8 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 5.6 percent black or African-American.

MassBio is starting an initiative to change this. The group is partnering with historically black colleges and universities to try to attract young people to careers in biotech. On the local level, MassBio is also working with other life sciences organizations in the state in hopes of steering kids from Boston Public Schools toward those jobs.

The trade association studied gender diversity in the industry last year. It has advised biotech companies on how to bring more women into the highest ranks.

"We're not doing it just to have diversity of numbers for window dressing," Edie Stringfellow, MassBio's new director of diversity and inclusion, said. "We're doing it because if you're excluding those voices from the table ... you're excluding people that can actually help bring therapies and cures to help have a healthier community."

WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins spoke with Stringfellow and Paula Soteropoulos, founding CEO of Akcea Therapeutics. Akcea is a biotech company in Cambridge that's developing drugs to treat rare diseases. Soteropoulos said having women in the upper ranks of her company changes the way it does business.

Interview Highlights

Paula Soteropoulos: We early on brought in some patients into our company and spent the time to listen to their stories. I will tell you, it was very emotional. Most of us were in tears, listening to what they go through. But in the course of that we understood that they had far more manifestations of their disease that they were living with every day and struggled with that we weren't capturing in our clinical study. So it changed how we then conducted our clinical studies. It also helped us assess how well is our medication was working.

Lisa Mullins: But what difference does having women on a board make for that kind of process?

Soteropoulos: I think that just bringing the type of management style that requires more collaboration ... and really empathy, as well. I will add, women can be very tough when they need to be, and I have to be decisive. But the point of it is really being inclusive and listening to other perspectives ... And what we've done in our company is ... today we have 50 percent of our board is women, almost 50 percent of our management team, women. It was a conscious effort. And it's not about quotas and trying to meet a number. It really is opening up the pool of talent.

So do things break down because management is not bringing women into higher positions, or, as you found, Edie, in the study for MassBio Council, a lot of women have children and that gets them off the track?

Edie Stringfellow: We get penalized when we take time off to have children and have families. So one thing that we look at how we can address that is encouraging shared parental leave at organizations and encouraging our male counterparts to take that leave. So that requires less time for the woman to be out of the workplace and to also ensure that there are mechanisms in place that she still is keeping in touch with her team to the best of balancing, not falling out of touch with what's going on at work, but also focusing on taking care of a healthy little baby.

Paula where, for you, do you find the breakdown?

Soteropoulos: So it's all of the things that you talked about. It is the time of taking off to start a family. But there's other things I have found as I looked back at my career, and where are the places that made a difference for me. I grew up in a very traditional family, traditional role. The cooking, cleaning, cleaning up after my older brother because that was expected of me. And [advancing in my career] started with, really, my husband, who was not raised that way. ... And he supported me more than I actually did myself in the sense, that I could do more than I thought I could.

The defining element that changed my career is people who took risks on me and taught me to take risks myself. ... I was at Genzyme for 20 years, and the company did foster a lot of risk-taking. That came from the late former CEO, Henri Termeer. ... It was never about gender for him — ever. And he encouraged people to take on roles that were a stretch — stretch goals — and I think I've seen a lot of companies lose that.

But it's not just a matter of self-esteem. And to what extent are there real barriers that are created by men at the highest levels?

Stringfellow: I can only list what we saw. And some of the barriers were the zero sum game, like, 'What's in it for me if we promote more women?' Also, 'Do I feel as if she is as qualified to do this role? Do I feel I'm confident in her abilities?' ... Unconscious bias: 'Can I depend on her to do something if she has to get a call and come home for school, or an emergency or something?' "

Paula, when did you find this in your career?

Soteropoulos: I've had someone specifically try to block a move that someone was promoting for me. I was being asked to lead an acquisition of a company. This person's manager stepped in and said, 'Nope. She has no experience, she has no ability, but pulled me off to the side, and he said to me, 'Why are you trying to do this? You have a family. This is going to take you away. You're going to have to travel.' And my response to him was, 'That's between me and my husband.'

Do you have to convince [companies] that [becoming more balanced in terms of gender diversity] is the right thing to do? And do you have to show, because you have the data to prove this, that it's good for the bottom line?

Stringfellow: We've made our business case for it. We have a lot of work to do as an industry, as a whole, but we are making strides. ... Most of our member organizations have embraced this change, this sense and this drive."

Soteropoulos: I'm very encouraged that things are moving and changing. It feels somewhat of a groundswell. Several years ago, earlier in my career, I think when you were the only woman on a management team, what I saw is women weren't helping women. It was almost like a badge of honor. I made it here, and they weren't helping other women. It is very different now. Women are helping women. And I, and I can see from recruiters — I get a lot of calls with opportunities for board, CEO types of positions because they're looking — more companies are looking for women. We've created a network in passing those opportunities on. It wasn't something I was seeing 10, 15 years ago.

This segment aired on June 7, 2018.


Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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