Breaking The Cycle: Gender Bias In BioPharma

Updated: Jan 23


Gender discrimination in biotech and pharmaceutical companies is a matter of complacency amongst industry leaders. The issue is well defined: equally qualified men and women enter the workforce at the same rate, but many more women either drop out or hit a plateau in their careers [1]. This vertical gender disparity that plagues the industry has a significant impact on women’s prosperity, professional influence, and overall health.


Like in many commercial industries, gender bias in the biotech and pharmaceutical sector is often downplayed or ignored. However, the statistics don’t lie. Men and women’s career paths typically diverge after the managerial level: approximately 68% of mid-level leaders, 71% of function leaders, 76% of C-suite executives, and a staggering 86% of board members within the life sciences industries are men [1]. An additional barrier to reaching equal gender representation is the mentality shared by the majority of male coworkers. Even after having been shown the prior statistics, a mere 13% of men in the life sciences industry believed that the recruitment process was biased [1]. A lack of gender representation in upper-tier management positions negatively impacts both the industry in terms of Research and Drug Discovery (R&D) innovation and economic prosperity, but also the society it serves, by placing additional barriers on safe and effective female healthcare. Research has shown that advancing women in R&D improves rates of medicine and drug discovery in part because women feel more empowered to voice their ideas or concerns [2]. Furthermore, the pharmaceutical industry’s distinct position at the intersection between health and business gives it a stronghold in regards to which diseases are invested in and which are not. Given that the vast majority of board members in the industry are men, it is not surprising that few pharmaceutical companies invest in women’s health, making something as fundamental as sex a strong social determinant of health [3]. Even amongst the diseases that are invested in and are not innately sex-related, women are often underrepresented in clinical trials, leading to under-acknowledged side effects, higher toxicity rates, and more uncertain impacts on fertility [4]. Amongst the few female health issues that are invested in, we see a higher rate of negative incidents due to negligence and lack of transparency in the industry [3]. It is clear that addressing gender bias in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry is an issue that extends beyond innovation and economic interest and plays a critical role in the prosperity and greater health of women.


Numbers like these can’t be ignored, and many of the key players in Big Pharma have taken initiatives to help close the gap [1]. But are more mentor programs, networking events, and training functions truly the solution? Abbie Celniker, partner at Third Rock Ventures, believes that the only way to ensure long-term success of these initiatives is to pursue them genuinely: “The goal isn’t to create diversity for diversity’s sake. The goal is to have an inclusive culture that can be measured by diversity,” [1]. Therefore, it is imperative that recruitment officials place an emphasis on the experience and knowledge that an individual brings to the position rather than their gender. Some may say that changing a company's work culture is more difficult than altering its policies on gender representation, but, ultimately, the biotech and pharmaceutical industry must change its policies, practice, and mindset if it is serious about addressing its gender discrimination issues [5].


If biotech and pharmaceutical companies continue to work toward accomplishing these goals, the industry will be able to successfully combat workforce gender bias, which will have an overall positive effect on women’s prosperity, professional influence, and overall health.


References:

  1. Jarvis, L.M. (2018). Why can’t the drug industry solve its gender diversity problem?. C&EN Global Enterprise, 96(10), 26-33. https://doi.org/10.1021/cen-09610-cover

  2. Jenkins, A. (2013) Advancing women in R&D will help accelerate medicine. Nature Medicine, 19. https://doi.org/10.1038/nm1213-1559

  3. Chilet-Rossell, E. (2014). Gender bias in clinical research, pharmaceutical marketing, and the prescription of drugs. Global Health Action, 7. https://doi.org/10.3402/gha.v7.25484

  4. Miller, M. (2001) Gender-Based Differences in the Toxicity of Pharmaceuticals—The Food and Drug Administration’s Perspective. International Journal of Toxicology, 20(3), 149-152. https://doi.org/10.1080/109158101317097728

  5. Bukhari, N., Manzoor, M., Rasheed, H. et al. (2020). A step towards gender equity to strengthen the pharmaceutical workforce during COVID-19. Journal of Pharmaceutical Policy and Practice, 13. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40545-020-00215-5

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