'An incredibly stubborn challenge': Board diversity in U.K. life sciences companies

At first glance, British companies are boosting their board diversity. Since 2011, the 100 largest companies trading on the London Stock Exchange have more than doubled the percentage of women on their boards from 12.5% to 33%—and they have done so without government-mandated quotas for board representation. But has the U.K. life sciences sector kept pace? 

The answer is no, according to a study of 132 biotech, pharma and medtech companies by Liftstream, a U.K. life sciences executive search firm. 

The study included 70 publicly listed companies and 62 privately held ones—about 50/50—and looked at 867 directors. Of the 132 companies only 13 had women CEOS (10%), with that figure dropping slightly for public companies: 8%. Women made up 15% of company board directors and just 2% of companies had appointed women as chair of the board of directors. 

About 40% of the companies had an all-male board and one-third had at least one woman on the board. However, of the companies that had women on the board, more than half had only one woman, suggesting that company boards “have not sought to diversify in a meaningful way,” Liftstream wrote in the study summary. 

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“Until these companies commit to adding additional women to their boards and proving they are not merely ‘one and done’ boards that can quickly regress towards all-male boards again, we have to temper any forecasts of positive and widespread shifts in board culture toward greater diversity and inclusion,” Liftstream wrote. 

Liftstream recommended that boards include at least three women or other “diverse candidates” to realize the “greatest advantages” of diversity, but that “it is not even close to becoming a reality among these 132 companies.” Only 10% of the companies in the study had three or more women board members. 

“Our latest study... reveals a reduction in the number of all-male boards but shows marginal overall gains since 2014. While there are modest advances in adding women to boards, the picture for racial and ethnic minorities is half as good,” Liftstream CEO Karl Simpson said in a statement. “Any progress is very welcome but relative to the U.K.’s largest companies, the sector is advancing slowly on diversity. We commend large-cap companies like GSK and AstraZeneca, as well as notable private biotech companies like Immunocore and OMass Therapeutics for appointing three or more women on their boards.” 

GlaxoSmithKline led public companies with five women board directors, including CEO Emma Walmsley, while AstraZeneca and Bicycle Therapeutics each had four women directors. Liftstream highlighted five private companies, including Cambridge Epigenetix, Crescendo Biologics and Kymab, as well as Immunocore and OMass. All five had three women directors on their boards and all but Kymab had women CEOs, too. 

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Liftstream tried to figure out if having a woman CEO had any effect on the gender balance of a company’s board, but it was a chicken-and-egg situation: “What we’re unable to determine is whether it is the diverse and enlightened boards which were more inclined to appoint a woman CEO, or whether the presence of a woman CEO has resulted in a diversified board. Likely it is a combination of both.” 

Finally, only 7% of directors were of a racial or ethnic minority, with 93 of the 132 companies (70%) having no racial diversity on their board. However, companies with racial minorities on their board were more likely to also have women on their board—that figure is 74% for public companies and 53% for privately held ones. 

"This is an indication that boards with a more progressive diversity outlook are not limiting themselves to gender,” Liftstream wrote. 

As for the future, parity is decades away. Liftstream calculated from a 2017 study of publicly listed biotech companies that the annual rate of change of adding women to boards was 1%. If the sector doesn’t change its pace, Liftstream figures it will be 2036 before women make up 30% of biotech boards and 2056 before boards reach gender parity. The 132 companies in the study would need to collectively add 131 women to their boards—more than doubling the current count—to boost female board representation to 30%. At the current rate, that won’t happen until 2038. 

“While Britain’s biggest companies have been addressing the matter, it would appear the U.K. life sciences sector has not been proactively tackling board or leadership diversity,” Liftstream wrote.