Things are looking up for women—or so they seem. In the era of #MeToo, more and more women are speaking up about workplace harassment and discrimination, and the perpetrators are increasingly held accountable. Industry groups, like the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), and states, such as California, are implementing rules to increase the proportion of women on corporate boards.
That’s encouraging. But in a way, these advances only highlight the hurdles professional women still face, even women at the top of their fields.
Take Donna Strickland, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, and Frances Arnold, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. They are two of three female Nobel laureates in this year’s field of 12 prize winners. Yet, until about an hour and a half after Strickland’s award was announced, the optical physicist was not considered important enough to have her own Wikipedia page. She shares the Nobel Prize for physics with two men; her colleague Gérard Mourou has had his own Wikipedia entry since 2005.
Life sciences is little different. Women fill half of the industry’s entry-level positions, but make up only 20% of leadership teams and 10% of boards, according to a study conducted by MassBio and LiftStream (PDF).
Individual companies and industry groups have come up with programs to help move women up the ladder. After LifeSci Advisors threw a model-staffed J.P. Morgan after-party in 2016—prompting widespread outrage—the company rehabbed its image by starting a “Boardroom Ready” program aimed at placing more women on boards.
And in a letter this October, BIO issued new targets for female representation at the highest ranks of its member companies. The letter raises the 2025 target for women at the functional leader and C-suite level to 50% from the current 25%. At the board level, BIO wants to see women in 30% of the industry’s board seats by 2025 rather than the current level of 10%. But that ultimatum came only after its own controversial party—this year’s Party At BIO Not Associated with BIO—where topless women danced, their bodies painted with the logos of investment groups and biotech companies sponsoring the event.
Still, programs can only work if there’s a diverse pool of talent to choose from, and that’s something this year’s fiercest women are working to develop.
Sara Kenkare-Mitra, Genentech’s senior vice president of development sciences, emphasized the importance of “investing in the next generation of female—and male—scientists and leaders.”
“We believe that by investing time, expertise and resources in science education, we can help ensure a talented and diverse pipeline of STEM professionals for the future,” she said.
Many of our honorees came of age when few women occupied high-level positions. While most women at smaller companies didn’t have a chance at formalized mentoring, they did have invaluable mentors and coaches along the way. Now, as their companies grow large enough to support formal programs, many are paying it forward, formally or informally coaching employees earlier in their careers.
Their most common piece of advice for women looking to advance? Be bold. It can seem as if an opportunity comes too soon, before a woman feels qualified. But Synlogic CEO Aoife Brennan and GlaxoSmithKline CMO Kate Knobil, M.D., tell women to try it anyway.
“It seems like women want to be overqualified before they put themselves up for a position, whereas a man might say, ‘Well, I might not have all the experience, but I can do that.’ So I encourage women to think that way, too. Don’t wait to be 100% qualified before putting yourself forward,” Knobil said.
Equally important is asking for the next step, said Marion Dorsch, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of Blueprint Medicines.
“Make sure that your supervisor and the people around you know where you want to go and what your ambitions are. Don’t be shy to ask for help and ask for ways to develop in the direction you want to.”
Read on to learn more about this year’s fiercest women in life sciences. They join the women honored in last year’s list, our first to include women from the medtech sector, and those on the 2016 list
2018’s Fiercest Women in Life Sciences
- Hanne Bak—Regeneron
- June Bray—Allergan
- Aoife Brennan—Synlogic
- Jennifer Carver—La Jolla Pharma
- Beth-Ann Coller—Merck
- Marion Dorsch—Blueprint Medicines
- Maria Fardis—Iovance Biotherapeutics
- Susan Galbraith—AstraZeneca
- Vinita Gupta—Lupin
- Kimi Iguchi—Sage Therapeutics
- Sara Kenkare-Mitra—Genentech
- Kate Knobil—GlaxoSmithKline
- Andrea Miller—Mylan
- Melissa Moore—Moderna Therapeutics
- Melanie Nallicheri—Foundation Medicine
- Rebecca Holland New—Thermo Fisher
- Arleen Paulino—Amgen
- Shalini Sharp—Ultragenyx
- Andrea Spezzi—Orchard Therapeutics
- Susan Sweeney—Bristol-Myers Squibb