Business & Tech

Shirley Leung

In 2018, there is no excuse for topless dancers at a corporate event

Kate Strayer-Benton updated an open letter written in 2016 by two female biotech leaders, Karen Bernstein and Kate Bingham, after an earlier industry confab featured scantily clad models dressed as waitresses.
Kate Strayer-Benton updated an open letter written in 2016 by two female biotech leaders, Karen Bernstein and Kate Bingham, after an earlier industry confab featured scantily clad models dressed as waitresses.

Kate Strayer-Benton is my new she-hero, and I’ll be quoting her so much today that I might as well make her an honorary columnist.

The Dartmouth MBA is the director of strategy at Cambridge biotech Momenta Pharmaceuticals. But earlier this week she set off a firestorm when she penned a brilliant open letter to the biopharmaceutical industry about how it’s not OK to feature topless female dancers at a business function.

Yes, this really happened in 2018 in Boston last week. It’s as if the event organizer and sponsors missed both the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. We’ve hit a new low when such entertainment at a corporate gathering is considered as normal as cheap wine and bland hors d’oeuvres.

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Thankfully, Strayer-Benton was willing to say something, do something when she walked into the Royale Boston club and saw women on stage wearing nothing but pasties and bikini bottoms, with corporate logos painted on their bodies.

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The annual gathering — known as the Party At BIO Not Associated With BIO, or PABNAB — is an industry networking event that takes place during the BIO International Convention, which was held here last week. (PABNAB is not affiliated with the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the trade group that organizes the convention.)

Presumably, scores of life sciences professionals also checked out PABNAB, but only Strayer-Benton dared to call the group out. She did so by updating an open letter written in 2016 by two female biotech leaders, Karen Bernstein and Kate Bingham, after an earlier industry confab featured scantily clad models dressed as waitresses. The organizer, investor relations firm LifeSci Advisors, had hired the women in the name of gender diversity. Really.

Strayer-Benton starts out her missive this way — with her edits in [brackets] and adds in bold:

“We can’t believe it’s [2016] 2018 and we have to spend our time writing this letter again.”

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She then builds on Bernstein and Bingham’s original letter showing how tone-deaf behavior cuts across different sectors.

“This isn’t the first time backward looking firms in the [securities] biotech industry have put women on show for the titillation of their predominantly male clientele.

“Really people? REALLY?? Are we still working with people who think of women as chattel?

“What compelling business rationale could there possibly be for that kind of entertainment?

“It doesn’t matter who, or what kind of company, organized these events. If biotech executives attend, they endorse them. That reflects not only on them as individuals, but on us an industry.”

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But Strayer-Benton really hits her stride when she turns to her own observations.

‘This isn’t a fresh perspective. This is something we’re all too familiar with.’

Kate Strayer-Benton 

“In 2016, Karen and Kate did not think they needed to give a full prescription of what every company needs to do. [But] They left it at ‘a good place to start is not hiring models.’

“For those who could not extrapolate this advice themselves: this includes topless dancers.

“And for those on whose deaf ears these not-so-subtle messages have landed: you probably do not want to have your company’s logo painted on the naked skin of topless dancers at industry events. Or, ever.”

Strayer-Benton told me she decided to update the 2016 letter after her own first draft of a response to the party was too long. She found herself struggling for a fresh perspective. Then it dawned on her.

“This isn’t a fresh perspective,” she said. “This is something we’re all too familiar with.”

When she re-read Bernstein and Bingham’s letter, she realized that “everything I wanted to say was in that letter.”

All she had to do was change a few dates and details.

“That was the most distressing part of it,” Strayer-Benton said of the realization that the industry seemed to go backward in two years.

After Strayer-Benton’s letter went viral on Tuesday, reaction was swift.

BIO chairman and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals CEO John Maraganore told STAT News he was “horrified.” He also laid down the law, warning that any companies that sponsored this year’s PABNAB will be kicked out of the trade group if they sponsor the event again.

Let that be just the beginning of the soul-searching. After the 2016 incident — which happened at a party associated with the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference — LifeSci Advisors funded a program to prepare more women to serve on biotech boards.

Locally, a group of women urged the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council to do more to fight gender inequities. That led the Cambridge trade group to pen an open letter in 2017, signed by more than 100 life science leaders, to commit to improving gender diversity. That same year, MassBio commissioned a landmark study on women in the life sciences that detailed the extent of a gender gap in Massachusetts. The 142-page report found that women hold only 14 percent of the seats on life sciences boards, and that women are in charge at only a quarter of the companies.

This year, MassBio hired its first director of diversity and inclusion and issued a policy in May aimed at stamping out all-male panels by refusing to participate in them.

Paula Soteropoulos, the CEO of Akcea Therapeutics in Cambridge, was one of those women who urged MassBio to step up after the 2016 incident.

“This is another call to action,” she said of the PABNAB controversy.

Expect to see Strayer-Benton remain on the front lines of this fight for equality.

“I absolutely will continue to press for change and will continue to look for the right avenue to do that,” she told me.

Well, Kate, this space is available when you need it next.

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