BIO: 'Diversity candidates' and knowledge 'shortfalls': Women in biotech say 'I'm here to do my job' despite toxic tropes

The script at BIO this year could not have been more clear: Progress on diversity is being made, but more work needs to be done. Yet still, an undercurrent of biotech’s all-boys brand-of-old tugged at the heels of efforts to bolster those long-excluded from positions of authority. Evidence of an era many are looking to shed was revealed at a panel where one executive appeared to tokenize underrepresented board candidates. 

“And I have to say, diversity candidates on the boards make the boards better, I can tell you that from experience,” said James Sapirstein, chairman, president and CEO of First Wave BioPharma. 

“There's different sensitivities, there’s different ways of approaching things, there’s different experiences that they have in their lives, and where they might have some shortfalls on the business experience, that's okay, because it's good to come in with some naive impressions and knowledge [sic],” he said. Sapirstein is a member of BIO’s Workforce Development, Diversity, & Inclusion committee. 

The comments were a bit of a head scratcher. Diversity candidates? Naive impressions and knowledge? BIO Chairman and CEO of NKarta Therapeutics Paul Hastings wasn’t pleased, to say the least. 

“I think it’s absolute bullshit to say that bringing women and minorities on boards are bringing people that have less business experience,” he said. “Business experience is life experience.” 

It was but one moment among hours of panels and discussions elevating diversity and inclusion, but it sticks out in an industry that, while improving, continues to be dominated by men.

 “Don’t just go after, you know, old, white CEOs.” — Paul Hastings, BIO chairman and CEO of NKarta Therapeutics

According to the latest report from the industry group, which included just 99 respondents, the share of female employees among biotechs rose slightly from 47% in 2020 to 49% last year. The number of female executives among the small sample size also ticked up, from 31% to 34%. However, only 1 in 5 CEOs are women, and 70% are white. 

“We’ve got to stay on top of that,” said Hastings. “Because this is not one of those things where you go, ‘Oh, we just did this, now we’re done.’” Although the data hint at progress, sexism and bias are far from extinguished. 

Gilly Regev, Ph.D., is all too familiar with this. The CEO and co-founder of SaNOtize, a Canadian company developing nitric-oxide-based treatments to kill viruses, bacteria and fungal infections, recalled persistent sexism. She described going into meetings with her male business partner and being cast aside in conversations. Regev also recounted winning a pitch competition and afterward, an investor remarking that she won “the shoe competition,” comments she says men would never have to fend off. 

“But you know what? It doesn't matter,” she said matter-of-factly. “I'm here to do my job, I'm here to get this company to the next level, I'm here to help the world and it doesn't matter, you can't let these things stop you.”

Speaking of leveling up, SaNOtize is slated to have an end-of-phase 2 meeting with the FDA July 18 for its dual COVID-flu treatment, a far cry from any shoe competition. 

Trying to corral interest in women’s health care is another precarious dance that exemplifies biotech’s sluggish diversity. It’s a routine that Daré Bioscience CEO Sabrina Martucci Johnson has had to perform over and over so as to not make the men she’s pitching too uncomfortable when talking about vaginas. It’s so persistent that over the years she’s refined her pitch, like figuring out how to compare the company’s once-monthly, hormone-free contraceptive to the inconsistency of condoms. Or in another example, relating Daré’s sexual arousal disorder med to Viagra. 

“[Y]ou kind of can’t get around talking about the anatomy to talk about how our products work,” she said. “And so we’ve had to learn how to just make people comfortable.” 

As noted by Johnson, the irony is that with unintended pregnancies making up 45% of all pregnancies, the marketplace for contraception is significant. That’s further underscored as abortion restrictions and disparities in women’s health care become more pervasive throughout the U.S. 

“If you had any other therapeutic category where you were saying, ‘Wow, 45% of the people with this condition are not effectively treated’ … we’d be going after it,” she said. 

Of course, addressing inequities extends beyond just gender. Pierre Theodore, M.D., a VP in global public health at Johnson & Johnson, felt that conversations about access “came across in a way that was a little more poignant than perhaps in the past.” Melinda Richter, global head of J&J’s JLABS incubator, similarly said talks felt “more candid” and “more on-point" these days. 

JLABS is a way the two can turn ideas into action. At its core, it's a worldwide network of startups curated and bolstered by the Big Pharma via mentorship, training, space and equipment. But the program also places a premium on recruiting a diverse pool of entrepreneurs, with 31% of companies led by women and 30% led by people who identify as racially or ethnically diverse. 

“We put a bunch of different components together, we thought about it from not just this one element, or that one element, we thought about how all of these pieces needed to fit together to have exponential, systemic change over time,” said Richter. And timing is critical, with Theodore noting how molding companies in their infancy can have a greater impact. 

“By working earlier, the changes that you can make could have more substantial, amplified effect down the road,” he said. “So we sort of figure, this is the ideal time.” 

Looking ahead, Richter said the company plans to further expand its data and detail on how acquired financing differs based on demographics. And she conceded that more work needs to be done, highlighting indigenous people as being particularly left out of the equation. 

As efforts like these and others sprout up around the industry, Hasting’s fervent defense of deliberate inclusion rings loud. 

“Do you want years of experience that’s been potentially overshadowed by being a high-level generalist, or do you want people that are in the weeds, doing the work?” he asked hypothetically. “Don’t just go after, you know, old, white CEOs.”