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BIO2016: Months After Infamous "Sexist" Biotech Party, LifeSci Advisors Finds New Ways to Showcase Women

6/8/2016 6:19:44 AM

BIO2016: Months After Infamous ‘Sexist’ Biotech Party, LifeSci Advisors Finds New Ways to Showcase Women June 8, 2016
By Alex Keown, Breaking News Staff

SAN FRANCSICO – Five months after being scorned for hiring models in tight dresses for an industry party at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, the leaders of LifeSci Advisors came to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization's convention with a different tack in mind—closing the gender gap and preparing more women for leadership roles in the pharma industry.

Michael Rice, a LifeSci founder, has been seen walking around the BIO conference carrying a manila folder with statistics and data about gender diversity. One of the data points in his folder is a note that 53 percent of U.S. companies that have a diverse board have a “53 percent higher return on equity.” The data point was provided to Rice by Catalyst, an advocacy group for executive women, the San Francisco Business Times reported this morning.

Since the outcry over the now infamous party featuring the hired models, Rice and the rest of LifeSci leadership have become champions of promoting the call for women in leadership roles. The company has combined its resources with the nonprofit organization Women in Bio, to help train women for leadership roles in the industry, either as executives or members of board of directors. A “Boardroom Ready” program, which will be held over a five-day period, is scheduled to begin in the fall at George Washington University, the Times said. The program is also backed by companies like Biogen (BIIB), but it continues to look for additional assistance. Kate Sarno, national president of Women in Bio, told the Times they are looking not only for applicants for the course, but also for financial sponsors and coaches who can guide the attendees after the course is over. Sarno and Rice said it will be a success if just five women join a pharma board by the end of the year. Bringing a woman onto a board can generate new energy because a woman will likely want to make a big impact, Rice told the Times.

In addition to supporting the launch of the training program, LifeSci has also added more women to its own leadership positions. The Times reported the organization now has six women in its ranks of 30, up from three a few months ago. The organization also created a new 13-member advisory board—12 of which are women—“to help measure the success of the firm's nascent gender diversity programs.”
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LifeSci’s turnaround was triggered after an open letter, signed by more than 230 pharma and biotech executives, decried the party thrown by LifeSci at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. The letter, authored by Karen Bernstein, chairman of BioCentury Publications, Inc. and Kate Bingham, managing partner of SV Life Sciences Advisers LLP, equated the hiring of models for the party as believing women were nothing more than “chattel.” The women were hired to attend the party to provide “balance” to the high number of male attendees, Andrew McDonald, a founding partner at LifeSci partners said in January.

Women occupy only 20 of 112 senior management roles at the 10 highest-valued companies in the pharma and biotech industry, Bloomberg said. In startups the numbers are better, but not by much. Of the top 10 biotech startups that raised the most money in 2014, only 19 percent of top executives were female and only 8 percent of board members were female, Bloomberg reported.

Possibly as a result of women only making a small percentage of pharma executives, there have been a few lawsuits and claims of sexism. In March of 2015, Alcon Laboritis Inc., a division of Novartis AG (NVS), was slapped with a $110 million gender discrimination lawsuit. In their lawsuit, the two plaintiffs, Elyse Dickerson and Susan Orr, say the company specifically violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender discrimination by employers, and the U.S. Equal Pay Act. Elizabeth Holmes, the embattled chief executive officer of blood-testing company Theranos, hinted at sexism in coverage she has received in the media. She bristles at being consistently referred to as a “young woman” in many news reports despite founding a company that has been valued at up to $9 billion.

Despite the efforts of drawing more women into leadership roles, there still remains some hurdles. The Times noted a Women in Bio luncheon this week at the BIO conference is having difficulty drawing men to participate, even though 150 were invited. The Times noted that five men of the 150 invited said they would attend. Sarno said it was important to include men because “women can’t just talk to women.”

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