Women of Color in Biopharma: Overcoming Barriers and Fighting for a Seat at the Table

From left: Alethia Young (Graphite Bio), Dr. Anna

From left: Alethia Young (Graphite Bio), Dr. Anna

Women of color continue to be trailblazers in the life science industry, proving that they can be just as, if not more, successful than their peers - even if it isn’t always easy.

From left: Alethia Young (Graphite Bio), Dr. Anna Wu (ImaginAb Inc.), Dr. Donnette Staas (Merck), Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton (WOCIP)/photos courtesy of these companies

It’s common knowledge that women are an integral part of the modern workforce. As of 2021, women made up about 46% of the U.S. workforce, with a labor force participation rate of 56%.

Even so, women earn $0.84 for every $1.00 their male counterparts earn, according to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) based on data from the 2019 U.S. Census. And for women of color, that figure is even less, at $0.63, despite participating in the workforce at much higher rates than white women.

This gap in pay and representation for women of color only widens in male-dominated fields like the life sciences. According to data gathered from BioSpace‘s 2022 Diversity in Life Sciences Report, White/non-Hispanic employees make up 62% of the life science community, and Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx people, in particular, are largely underrepresented.

Still, women of color continue to defy the odds and fight for their seats at the table, proving that they can be just as, if not more, successful than their peers - even if it isn’t always easy.

Navigating Microaggressions and Overcoming Self Doubt

In the same BioSpace report, White/non-Hispanic identifying respondents were on average 5% more likely to agree with statements related to their inclusion, belonging and fairness in business and hiring practices, while people of color were 9% less likely to agree.

This data is mirrored in a 2021 study published by Mckinsey that states women of color “remain far more likely than white women to be on the receiving end of disrespectful and ‘othering’ behavior.”

To make matters worse, the authors add that “while more white employees see themselves as allies to women of color, they are no more likely than last year to speak out against discrimination, mentor or sponsor women of color, or take other actions to advocate for them.”

This means that if women of color want to climb the corporate ladder, they have to become advocates for themselves. Fortunately, many already are.

A Lack of Mentorship and Opportunity

Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton is the senior vice president of product development and strategy at Chinook Therapeutics. She is also the president and founder of Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP), a non-profit professional society focused on transforming the pharmaceutical landscape for women of color.

Jones-Burton told BioSpace that she started WOCIP to give other women of color something she never had in the industry - a supportive community.

“As a Black woman, I have witnessed, experienced or researched health inequities my entire life,” she said. “When I entered the pharmaceutical industry 15 years ago, I felt alone, lost and marginalized. I started WOCIP to ensure that others did not have to experience what I experienced.”

WOCIP focuses on identifying the needs of women of color, specifically Black women and Latinas, and providing them with the tools they need to overcome these barriers. Jones-Burton said one of the greatest challenges women of color in pharma face is a lack of mentorship and opportunities for growth and development.

“I did not understand how to succeed or even how to show up to meetings with confidence, sit at the table and engage in discussions. All of these things matter and contribute to one’s development,” she explained.

This feeling of isolation began to subside only when people in positions of power recognized her abilities and offered her opportunities to join their teams.

“Being marginalized was overcome by having my bosses and sponsors provide ‘cover’ for me (supporting/defending me when I am not in the room), advocating for me amongst others and empowering me to speak up and engage in meetings and projects.”

Overcoming Assumptions with Advocacy and Allyship

Dr. Donnette Staas, associate vice president of vaccines regulatory affairs at Merck, shared a similar experience. She told BioSpace that despite her success, there are still people who doubt her qualifications and abilities.

“We are often in a “double bind” being both female and of color in what has historically been a field dominated by white male scientists,” Staas said. “Even today, there are assumptions made about how you made it into the field, and when you do move up the career ladder, there are those who assume it’s because the company needs to satisfy a quota.”

According to Staas, these doubts are rarely expressed outright. Instead, they often take the form of microaggressions -indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

“It took me a long time between graduate school and pharma to recognize those microaggressions when they happened, and the importance of that recognition is so that we don’t internalize negative subtleties, which can create misplaced self-doubt.”

Internalizing this negativity can lead women of color to believe that they really are less qualified or incapable of reaching their goals. Staas agreed with Jones-Burton that the best way to counter these doubts is to find a supportive community.

“Advocate for those seats at the table, which you have worked hard to earn. Identify sponsors, not just mentors, as sponsors can provide strong allyship and be that voice for you when you are not yet at the table. Build networks that are diverse and inclusive, as there is something to be learned from the rich milieu of talent of which you are a part. Embrace the wonderful science being done around you and fully engage in those conversations and projects, even when others may seem to have doubts about your talent.”

Securing a Seat at the Table

One of the most difficult parts of advocating for oneself is being able to distinguish between constructive criticism and negativity due to pre-conceived biases. The latter can be detrimental to one’s self-image, especially if it comes from someone you respect.

For Alethia Young, this negativity came early in her career.

“One of my previous managers actually told me I would never be successful as a biotech analyst,” Young told BioSpace. “While it was hard to hear, l later realized after a lot of introspection that this feedback was not necessarily about me, but more about how she was feeling at that time.”

Instead of internalizing these comments, she was able to use them as motivation to succeed. Young is now the chief financial officer at Graphite Bio.

“I used this negative feedback to fuel my drive to succeed and to build resiliency. I learned to take what is relevant from feedback and to use it productively.”

Self-advocacy also includes believing that you can, truly, have it all. Many women believe that even if they do find success in their careers, they will eventually have to choose between their personal and professional lives. But Young said it doesn’t have to be that way.

“I believe as a woman you can have it all, but it takes a lot of management to have the things you want, professionally and personally. For me, it’s about the time you spend with people – being deliberate about the time you have and who you spend time with.”

A Need for Role Models

For Dr. Anna Wu, the concept of having it all included starting her own biotech company.

Wu is the co-founder and chief scientific advisor to ImaginAb Inc., which develops and commercializes engineered antibodies for clinical imaging in cancer and other diseases. She is also a chair and professor at the department of immunology & theranostics at City of Hope, a biomedical research, treatment and educational institution.

Wu told BioSpace that one of the biggest obstacles in her career was her own lack of confidence.

“I had never, ever, envisioned myself founding a company,” she said.

This was, in part, due to a lack of representation. As an Asian woman, Wu emphasized the importance of having someone who looks like her in a position of power.


“The biggest challenge is the lack of role models,” Wu said. “I never saw myself as an industry leader or biotech founder. And others in positions of experience and power don’t see women of color in these roles either, so they never think about it. I still get frustrated attending scientific conferences where there are few or no women speakers.”

Despite the covert and overt microaggressions, lack of representation and nagging self-doubt, women of color continue to be pioneers and trailblazers in the life science community. And that’s largely because of the determination of women like Jones-Burton, Staas, Young and Wu.

Alethia Young put it best when she said, “Our experiences and the experiences of generations before us have led to a hesitancy to ‘rock the boat.’ However, no one can advocate for what you need better than yourself. If you don’t ask, you won’t receive and you’ll always be left wondering ‘what if?’'"

She added that there is more than enough room for anyone who wants to become successful in this space - especially women like her.

“People think there are a finite number of opportunities for women, people of color, women of color, etc., but that’s not true. There is room for everyone – we just need to find how to get to our next opportunities.”

For more insight on the state of female representation in the life sciences, see BioSpace‘s Diversity in Life Sciences: Through the Microscope: Women in Life Sciences report.