For women in CAR-T, diversity means finding 'a new normal'

People around a conference table headed by a black woman
CAR-TCR Summit 2019 panelists saw a similar “attrition” in female representation going up the ranks in their own organizations, even though, as Akron Biotech CEO Claudia Zylberberg put it, “knowledge has no gender.” (Shutterstock)

The observations were unsurprising. Panelists convened by the CAR-TCR Summit last week compared statistics of female representation in their companies, finding that the lower ranks were filled pretty evenly by men and women but that this ratio skewed dramatically the higher up they looked. 

“From those bottom three levels, manager, director and VP, we were at about 40% to 50% women ... But the stark contrast is our C-suite which is only 20% women,” said Kimberly Freeman, Ph.D., vice president of commercial strategy and planning at Adaptimmune. “Granted, it’s one out of five, but it’s still a trend I’ve seen across the industry.” 

Freeman was joined by colleagues from across the chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) and T-cell receptor (TCR) space, ranging from Claudia Zylberberg, Ph.D., CEO of Akron Biotech, a supply chain manufacturer for companies developing cell and gene therapies, and Barbra Sasu, Ph.D., the chief scientific officer at Allogene, to Isabelle Rivière, Ph.D., director of the cell therapy and cell engineering facility at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

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The panelists saw a similar “attrition” in female representation going up the ranks in their own organizations, even though, as Zylberberg put it, “knowledge has no gender.” 

“The truth of the matter is, when in a room where you are speaking the same language, gender disappears. That’s my experience having been in boards that are majority male,” she said. 

“I was struck by what Claudia said: Knowledge has no gender,” said Miguel Forte, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of Zelluna. “I also think competence has no gender, but currently, opportunities have a bit of a gender and I think that’s something we should be aware of.” 

To address the gender imbalance in the life sciences industry, Nina Bauer, the chief commercial officer at Flodesign Sonics who worked on cell therapies at Lonza, said it has to be done from within, even if “it’s hard to find women who are willing to put up with what’s happening, with the politics that are going on at that high level.” 

“Maybe some of us will have to bite the bullet and put up with it and change it from within so that [diversity] does become the new normal. I think one way to do it is indeed with laws,” Bauer said. 

Industry groups like the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and states such as California are working on this by implementing rules and laws to increase the proportion of women on corporate boards. The consensus on the panel was that these rules should serve as stepping stones to “a new normal.” 

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“There are many countries—and I even see it in the U.S. today—where you need to have a law for equal opportunity because equal opportunity maybe doesn’t exist,” Zylberberg said.  

The laws are meant to guide us in thinking about diverse candidates and improving diversity until one day, “the behavior becomes second nature,” she said. 

Other ways to get to the new normal involve thinking about diversity on teams the same way one would consider any other business decision. 

“Anyone who is building a team knows that diversity of any kind will get a better outcome from the team,” Forte said. “I think [improving gender diversity] is something we should consider, if not for the sake of rebalence, then for the sake of being effective and getting good teams.” 

“Rather than pointing out the negative, we should be saying this is good business sense. It's a way more compelling argument that we can have rather than saying it’s so unfair,” Bauer said. 

Of course, unless they’re terrible humans, people don’t mean to discriminate. 

“I try and think of this in terms of conscious and unconscious bias. I don’t think anybody out there means to discriminate. There are things in their heads that they don’t realize that they’re doing,” Sasu said.  

“We have to give people a break and understand where their unconscious bias is and help to point it out in a kind and helpful way,” she added. 

And as companies, industry groups, states and countries are working to boost diversity, individuals can do their part both for their own careers and to be a “trailblazer,” in Bauer’s words, that helps drive change in the industry. 

The universal piece of advice was to find a “little village” of sponsors and mentors who know who you are and where you want to go, said Andrea Moore, director of analytical development at Tmunity Therapeutics.

‘Having people you trust that genuinely have your success at heart is very important,” said Ariane Hamaide, vice president of corporate development at Cellectis. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of people, but people you truly trust and can count on, who will be there to help, to advise and to tell you the hard things as well. It’s not about having someone who always agrees; it’s about having someone who will tell you when you’re wrong and when you’re not doing the right thing.” 

The panel’s advice for women who may feel intimidated by gender imbalance at any level of the hierarchy? Fake it till you make it. 

“It’s all about … finding a way to find your voice and build that confidence, and maybe express a bit more confidence than you feel until you have that level of confidence because people respect people who respect themselves,” Sasu said. 

“Something I have always told myself is be proud: you’re here. You’re just as good as anybody else—maybe better—and don’t be intimidated,” Hamaide said.

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