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Zahra Champion

Australia’s growing support for women in Life Sciences

In Life Sciences, there is, regrettably, a glass ceiling. If you are involved in the Life Sciences in any country where the sector is strong, you’ll have noticed a push in recent years to increase the number of leadership positions that are held by women. Usually there’s regular networking events for women in all the biotech hubs around the country, and if you attend a conference there’ll likely be a booth for the national ‘Women in Biotech’ organisation. And no wonder. Emma Walmsley may have become the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline in 2017, putting a woman in charge of the world’s eighth-largest pharmaceutical company, but only three other pharma companies in the Top 50 globally have a female in the top job.

Meanwhile, a mere 5.7% of companies currently represented in the Nasdaq Biotechnology Index – the generally accepted benchmark for the leading biotech and medical device companies globally – have a female CEO. That’s right, 5.7%, which is amazing when you consider that close to 40% of those companies are headquartered in two ostensibly liberal places – the San Francisco Bay Area in California and the Boston-Cambridge axis in Massachusetts. Indeed, the current picture could be said to be even bleaker for women who aspire to global leadership in our sector. Of the three other women beside Emma Walmsley in peak leadership positions at Big Pharma, two of them – Menarini’s Lucia Aleotti and Lupin’s Vinita Gupta – are in their jobs in part because they are daughters of the respective founders. That doesn’t diminish the achievements or qualifications of these women in any way, but it makes you wonder if a female non-family member would have a chance. As for the 149 Nasdaq Biotechnology Index companies that are not one of the Top 50 Pharma companies (ie excluding Mylan, run by Heather Bresch, and other established companies like Amgen, Gilead and Celgene), the eight companies with female CEOs only represent 3.5% of the total combined market capitalisation of the 149. Why is it so? Well, science has always been something of a boy’s club, as evidenced by the fact that, of the 130 living Nobel laureates who have won the Prize for either Medicine or Chemistry (click here), 122 are men and only 8 are women*. Combine that with male dominance of venture capital when the biotech industry was getting started in the 1970s and 1980s and it’s not particularly surprising that women remain under-represented even in the much more mature 2010s.

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Zahra Champion Zahra is Executive Director of BIOTechNZ and is working to bring together a national community of biotech innovators, investors, researchers, educators and policy makers; and connecting this community to global biotech ecosystems.