Despite a sheen of modernity, many biotech companies are surprisingly backward in one regard: The number of women in leadership roles. Recent surveys of the industry found that just 10 percent of companies have female chief executives, and less than 30 percent of executive teams and boards of directors are women.
“The fact that women are not getting into leadership positions is something that is clearly visible throughout the pharmaceutical industry — and a lot of industries in general,” says Ingrid Delaet, Ph.D., senior vice president of regulatory affairs at Intercept Pharmaceuticals. “Whether at a small biotech or a larger company, the number of women in leadership positions is improving, but still too low.”
Dr. Delaet, along with Leigh MacConell, senior vice president of clinical development, and Gail Cawkwell, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president of medical affairs, safety and pharmacovigilance, are three senior executives leading Intercept’s efforts to secure FDA approval for the first medication to treat a common liver condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) that is the leading cause of liver transplant among women in the United States.
There’s little doubt that despite changing attitudes towards gender roles, women continue to face unique challenges. “Women approach things differently and often have more challenges being heard in male-dominated environments. It’s important for leaders to learn how to draw out and appreciate perspectives from colleagues from a variety of different backgrounds. We know that in general, diverse teams are often more innovative and productive,” notes Dr. Cawkwell.
Part of the solution involves women supporting each other. “I think sometimes women will feel frustrated that they’re not being recognized,” Dr. Cawkwell says. “Providing that support of ‛How do you get your voice out there?’ is important. As is encouragement and reminders, such as ‘We hired you because you know what you’re doing, you have great experience, a great educational background.’ These are things I find helpful, especially for women who are early in their career.”
Dr. Delaet notes the role unconscious bias sometimes plays in making it difficult for women to crack male-dominated groups — and for men to be aware of this bias potential. “When you’re in a group, you will subconsciously go to the person that resembles you the closest. You automatically trust them more. You don’t do it purposely; you don’t do it consciously. But some of that will be there unless you actively make yourself not do that.”
Dr. Delaet warns that everyone has blinders. “I had an intern, and I showed him the executive committee at another company with which I’m familiar. My view was that it was 90 percent men. My intern was from India, and he looked at it and said, ‛Oh, they’re all white.’ Each one of us needs to work on seeing things from someone else’s point of view, and to recognize and address our own limitations.”
Dr. Cawkwell also notes that women often undermine themselves without realizing it. “Focus on word choice when you bring up an idea. Do you tend to minimize your contributions by saying, ‛I know this might be a bad idea,’ or ‛Here’s a little thing we may want to consider’? Word choice can have a lot of power. Just be clear and specific.” This is one of the areas that Dr. Cawkwell focuses on when mentoring women in her organization.
Leigh MacConell believes that things are moving in the right direction for women and cites that according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 2017 was the first year that more women enrolled in U.S. medical schools than men. “I believe that things are trending in the right direction for women in science, but we need to continue to advocate for women leaders. Women’s experiences as mothers, daughters, wives, and primary caretakers, as well as our experiences as scientists and businesswomen, often make us uniquely qualified to understand and address public health issues.”
All three leaders found their way to Intercept for similar reasons: opportunity and culture. “The challenges and the excitement and the energy of doing something with a potentially huge public health impact were what drove me to come to Intercept,” says Dr. Cawkwell. “For example, the opportunity to potentially bring the first medicine to market for NASH.”
The culture Dr. Cawkwell found there is encouraging for the industry’s future. “At Intercept, we recognize the power of a diverse, equitable and inclusive work force — how it enriches our professional lives and helps us better connect with the patients and communities we serve.”
“In my experience, one of the best ways for women to advance their careers is through close connections and collaborations with other women,” says MacConell. “The Shine Theory premise, ‘I don’t shine if you don’t shine,’ highlights how important it is for women and their peers in the workplace to support and build each other up.”
Together these senior female leaders at Intercept are helping to pioneer the development of a new therapy for patients with advanced fibrosis due to NASH, who currently have no available treatment options. They remain focused on supporting each other and diversity in their organization to drive innovation.