fb-pixel Skip to main content
Shirley Leung

Why too few women in life sciences is bad for business

Abbie Celniker, chair of the board of MassBio, said the group wanted to delve deeper into gender inequality.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Everyone knows a gender gap exists in the life sciences, but why?

The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council dared to find out and on Thursday is set to release a 142-page report that is being billed as the most comprehensive study on gender diversity in the industry.

The report, conducted by executive recruiting firm Liftstream, is based on a survey of 70 companies and 900 individuals, including current and former employees of the sector.

Abbie Celniker, chairwoman of the board of MassBio and a partner at Third Rock Ventures, said the group wanted to delve deeper into gender inequality at a time when the competition for talent is so fierce.


“We are not leveraging all the amazing talent out there, and we need to start doing that,” said Celniker.

The trade group isn’t trumpeting diversity because it feels good. Study after study show that a diverse workforce is better for the bottom line. Different viewpoints can be even more valuable to companies that require innovation to grow — which is basically every company these days.

The MassBio analysis provides a road map of the barriers women face throughout their careers, something the group hopes companies will examine and address. As to why women can’t break through leadership ranks, the study simply concludes: “The answer is that the system is broken.”

The landmark report is packed with data, and here are what I think are the five biggest takeaways:

1. Women like science, and they want to be the boss. Women enter the industry in equal numbers as men (49.6 percent vs. 50.4 percent). Women also aspire to be in the corner office or serve as a board director at similar rates as men.

2. Despite being ambitious, few women make it to the top. Only 1 in 4 “c-suite” executives is a woman; only 1 in 10 board members is a woman.


3. The gender gap widens sharply after women reach the vice president and senior vice president levels. Celniker describes this group as women in their early 40s who have worked hard, sacrificed, and juggled being a mom and a working professional.

“They are at this point, ‘Am I going to take it to the next level?’ said Celniker. “This is where they often do a career switch.”

4. Women aren’t afraid to ask for promotions. Nearly 40 percent of mid- to high-level female executives reported having to frequently ask for promotions compared with 12.5 percent of men. Among top female executives, 63 percent report that they changed careers regularly to move up the ranks compared with 21 percent of top male executives.

5. All-male boards? Yeah, women have a problem with that. Nearly half of the women in the survey said they would turn down an offer from a company with an all-male board and all-male management, and if they were interviewed only by men. “When you don’t see diversity in front of [you], you don’t trust there is an authentic commitment to it,” said Celniker.

In the last section of the study, MassBio appropriately recommends 50 actions that companies can take to close the gender gap. The list includes everything from offering flexible work schedules to retaining women after career breaks to broadening recruitment networks.

With the clearer idea of why inequality persists in the life sciences, we shouldn’t hear any more excuses about why the problem can’t be fixed.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.