Helen Torley, M.B, Ch.B., came across an interesting statistic last year. Out of the 44 publicly traded biotech companies in the thriving life science hub of San Diego, there was only one female CEO: her.

The report, released in 2016 by UK-based executive recruitment firm Liftstream, found that only 2 percent of biotech companies in San Diego have a female CEO, while the national average is between 7 and 9 percent.

Since taking the reins as CEO of Halozyme Therapeutics three years ago, Torley knew from first-hand experience that the gender balance was skewed, as she was often one of only a few women among 50 men at CEO networking events. However to find out that the numbers were quite so low was “certainly a surprise,” she told Bioscience Technology.  

That trend in biotech is not exclusive to the CEO role, though. A new study this year from Liftstream of 177 biotechs that went public from 2012 through 2015 found that women held only 10 percent of board positions. One positive note was that nearly 58 percent of the studied boards had a woman on them, which is up from 48 percent reported in Lifstream’s 2014 survey.

The new report also found that gender diversity at the leadership level is associated with business advantages. Companies that had at least one female board member saw an average share price increase of 19 percent, while those with all-male board members showed a 9 percent decrease.

So why are women being underrepresented in the top levels of biotech organizations?

Torley, who has become more interested in and vocal about this topic since seeing recent statistics, broke this question down into three parts:

  • Are women graduating with the basic qualifications to be able to move into senior roles?
  • Looking at the pipeline of women, are they being trained to be able to assume the roles of CEOs?
  • When companies have women candidates, are they being selected equally for promotions or is there an unintentional bias happening?

When it comes to the first factor, Torley does not think it is a matter of under training. “If you look at the graduates of all the major business schools, 40 percent of Columbia, Harvard, MIT are women,” she said. “So certainly we’re getting business-trained women.”

The same goes for the percentage of women graduating with STEM degrees, which is rising all the time, Torley, who first started out as a physician training in rheumatology, said.

As for the pipeline of women, Torley referenced a 2016 McKinsey & Company study about the state of women in corporate America.

“What we see is that women, in general, are less likely to be promoted, less likely to get developmental opportunities, and less likely to have meaningful interactions with senior management or have a sponsor for their career,” she said.

The concept of sponsorship, which will be discussed later, is very important to Torley.

Women drop off at every promotional level, according the McKinsey report, with the percentage getting lower and lower at each higher rung of the corporate ladder.

For first time CEO’s, the majority come from what in biotech is called a line function position, where they’re in a role such as the head or VP of a business unit, Torley said. At senior levels, studies show that women often shift from line to staff roles, such as in human resources or finance. By the time they reach the SVP level, women hold only 20 percent of line roles, which hurts their chances of getting a CEO position, the McKinsey report found.

“So women are not moving up the chain and being given the types of jobs you need to have to prepare you to be a CEO,” Torley said.

While Torley said women are obviously making progress in getting to higher levels, she noted there is certainly data to suggest an unconscious bias can be at play during the selection process where companies don’t develop a diverse candidate pool or choose a male over a female.

Also, from her own experience, though not while at Halozyme, she said she has seen unconscious bias at play and been in “plenty of discussions” where a promotion is on the table and people in the room discussing candidates would say things like ‘well she won’t be able to move she’s got young children’ or ‘I know her husband and he’s got a great job so they won’t move,’ or even worry that a female candidate could become pregnant.

It’s very important that filters aren’t on, and companies should understand that in today’s world work life balance issues are just as important for males as females, she noted.

The good news, Torley said, is that all of these issues can be addressed with attention and effort.

“It’s a multifactorial situation, and there’s room for improvement at every step.”

Sponsor vs. mentor

One important aspect of career development that many women lack is a sponsor.  Women tend to have mentors, which are great and can give advice and guidance, but as a general rule, Torley said, mentors are not in a position to specifically advance a woman’s career.

In contrast, men tend to have a network that includes sponsorship—a person who is actively engaged in helping them find jobs and provide opportunities.

It is only in retrospect that Torley realized how important sponsors were to her success and advancement, and that she was extremely fortunate to have numerous ones as her career progressed.

For example, when she was up for a big promotion early in her career as a rheumatologist, she admits she may not have been the most scientifically qualified but the head consultant sponsored her to be the person he wanted in that role.

Then, when she moved to Novartis to head up ongoing phase 3 studies, she wanted to switch from the medical side of the company to marketing and business. She tried for a year, but no one listened to her until a new head of marketing came in. When Torley asked to be moved, he decided to take a chance on her and the next day she found herself heading up a launch.

Later, Torley had the same experience at Amgen, where she was working on the rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel. The head of sales and marketing came into her office and asked if she wanted to head up a business unit, and that opportunity helped her make the difficult transition to enter into a line leadership function that helped prepare her for her future as a CEO.

Torley credits having these sponsors who were willing to take a chance on her. 

“I was probably at 80 percent of the qualifications, but they said ‘I think she’s got the potential, let me sponsor her in this role, support her and help her to be successful.”

Unfortunately, women don’t have sponsors as often as men.

Dr. Helen Torley
President, CEO, Halozyme Therapeutics

Diversity of opinion

After the Liftstream report came out Torley decided to take a closer look at Halozyme’s own workforce and she was pleasantly surprised to find that without any initiatives, mandates or quotas, the company had a pretty balanced workforce. Of her 10 person executive team, 50 percent are men and 50 percent are women. As for managers, 47 percent are female and 53 percent are male.

How does this happen?

Torley believes diversity begets diversity.

“A lot of women who join our company say they were attracted to the company because we have so many women in leadership roles and so when I say diversity begets diversity, I think this concept of having role models, people who show it can be done, it’s very inspirational for people who want to progress and see there’s a path,” she said.

Torley was also fortunate to have female role models during her 12 years at Bristol Myers Squib. It was the late 90s and Torley said she found it amazingly progressive that she was a VP there, reporting to a female VP who in turn reported to an female executive VP — and that was just her direct line. She also noted there were other women role models who weren’t in her direct line of command but who she interacted with frequently.

“I think that role modeling created a great atmosphere for me, certainly to see what is possible and the importance of the diversity of opinion.”

Putting gender diversity efforts into practice

Torley believes the heads of companies are becoming more aware of data that show a company has stronger performance with more female board members and leaders, and sees the dialogue among her CEO peers growing, but there’s a disconnect between thinking about it and putting efforts into practice. 

She cited the McKinsey report, which says almost 80 percent of CEOs state gender diversity is a priority, but this doesn’t always translate to senior management, noting that according to the survey only 20 to 40 percent of employees say senior leaders ever talk about gender diversity’s importance.

“They never have a candid dialogue about it and people aren’t held accountable to improve diversity,” Torley said. “I think there’s a gap between people recognizing it’s important and a potential competitive advantage, to how they’re operationalizing it and making it happen within the company.”

The issue is becoming more of a business imperative, Torley said, which is bringing greater attention to making sure there is more diversity.

“I think people are aware that investors, such as pension funds, are now asking questions before investing about the diversity numbers of companies.”

Companies don’t need to have mandates or quotas to achieve gender diversity, but Torley believes they need to focus on where they’re losing women, which from the studies she has seen show it’s generally the promotion to manager and then on to a VP position.  They also need to have adequate training to ward off against unintentional bias.

After reading the reports, Torley asked the chair of the search committee who hired her if they were trying to find a female CEO or if it was just by chance.

The board was very aware of the data that suggests having a female CEO and having more diversity of women on the board is associated with improved performance. So while it wasn’t a mandatory goal, they certainly were interested in having a diverse candidate pool, which is something all companies could aim to do.

Taking a step like insisting on diverse boards would also help. However, to do so, boards, which in general are mostly male, should go outside of their networks to find talented women. Often a board wants someone with prior CEO experience, but because there is a lack of female CEOs in the industry, they might need to go one level down and take women with C-suite experience and sponsor them into the role of board member, Torley said.

“The fun statistic is that the tipping point for high performing boards is to have three women,” Torley said. “So my advice to boards is don’t pick one – pick three – because that’s where performance starts to excel.”

The future of female leadership in biotech

When asked if we will see more women in leadership and board member positions at biotech companies in the future, Torley is optimistic but feels things need to move faster.

“We will definitely see more [women in leadership roles], but there needs to be a call to action to make things move faster, because progress is happening at a very glacial pace.”

At the current rate of progress, based on the number of women holding line leadership roles and therefore being eligible for CEO positions, an equal split of 50/50 would not be reached until 2070.

“We’re under 10 percent today and it’s progressing very slowly, that’s a pretty frightening statistic.”

Another thing Torley thinks women can do is take more ownership of their careers, identify where they want to go and what additional skills and experiences they need and then go ask for assignments. It also helps to have more confidence in their experience and what they would be capable of learning on the job.

“Women want to have 100 percent of the skills before they move on, but they’ve got to get comfortable moving into new roles before having all of the experiences.”

Men, on the other hand, don’t hesitate as often to put themselves forward for new roles, even if they don’t have all of the needed experience.

Overall, Torley thinks that companies are coming around to seeing gender diversity as a benefit, and can take simple steps, like building diverse candidate pools, training against unconscious bias and introducing sponsorship programs, which is something Halozyme is currently evaluating. Still, she wants the conversation to keep going and has shared her story in hopes of bringing more attention to the issue.

“We need to have more focus on [gender diversity], and there needs to be more of a rallying cry—from both management and companies—but employees can do a lot of this,” she said. “We’ve just got to create an environment where people feel comfortable talking it out with somebody, finding a sponsor and managing their own career.”  

San Diego-based Halozyme Therapeutics is a publicly traded biotech company with a $1.8 billion market cap that is focused on developing and commercializing novel cancer therapies that target the tumor microenvironment. Their lead investigational drug PEGPH20 is an enzyme that targets and degrades hyaluronan (HA) in the tumor microenvironment, potentially allowing higher concentrations of therapeutic agents to reach the targeted tumor. The company is currently enrolling patients for a Phase 3 study at 200 sites in 22 countries around the world for advanced pancreatic cancer patients. The company also signed a clinical collaboration agreement with Roche at the end of last year to perform combination studies of PEGPH20 with Roche’s anti PDL-1 therapy. Halozyme is also working to generate data in breast, lung, and gastric cancer in patients who have high HA.  

Contributing Editor/Science Writer