Minorities in STEM

Addressing Gender Imbalance in Biotechnology Requires a Change in Recruitment and Hiring Practices

Holding recruiters and hiring managers accountable for increasing women in STEM at all organization levels is an important strategy for making much needed progress.
— By Debra Jenkins

The gender gap in the global biotechnology industry persists, proving the stubbornness and real impact of unconscious and cultural biases. In 1997, a Bioventure Women in Biotechnology Survey reported 15 percent of the top 100 publicly held biotech companies had women in top management and 5 percent had female CEOs. Zooming ahead to 2014, the UK executive recruitment firm Liftstream's survey of 1,500 public companies in Europe and the U.S. found that female-held leadership positions in large companies accounted for 13.9 percent. That is very little progress over 17 years by any measure.

When Liftstream's CEO was asked if there is more interest in recruiting women in biotechnology, he said there is more "consciousness and awareness" at the board level, but there is no discernible trend yet. The question was significant because it is proactive recruiting and hiring policies that can trigger the desired trend.

Wanted: Solutions to Close the Gender Gap
The gender gap in biotechnology is found at all levels, from the board room to the C-suite to managers. One of the practices creating a strong barrier to greater inclusion of women is reminiscent of a saying attributed to Albert Einstein (appropriately a scientist) that points out it does not make sense to do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results.

Companies that utilize traditional recruitment practices for leadership and other positions are likely to continue hiring men. Traditional recruitment practices include utilizing personal and work networks; limiting recruitment to the industry segment; requiring business management experience, meaning academic leaders are excluded; and maintaining bias in recruitment policies and procedures. When mostly men are funneled into the talent pipeline for employment consideration, hiring managers perpetuate the gender imbalance at all levels.

One of the major hurdles to overcome is unconscious bias. It stops companies from re-evaluating recruitment and hiring practices, and leads decision-makers down the path of making the same choices over and over again. Unconscious bias also contributes to maintaining a corporate culture that might as well say outright that discrimination is acceptable.

Unless executives and senior leaders actively think and act in support of increasing the participation of women in biotechnology, not much will change. This may sound like an oversimplification, but it is not. Sometimes there is a general feeling that companies can present many reasons for not hiring more women in biotechnology, but they do not make a sincere effort to improve recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion policies and practices that can bring real change.

What Do Women Want?
Making changes to the talent management process is a first step toward making the biotechnology firm more attractive to women. For example, many female scientists work in academia, but they often do not get management credit for being academic leaders like assistant deans.

Some companies hire just enough women to make it reasonable to ask whether tokenism is still at play. Women do not want to be tokens. What do women want?

One desired corporate attribute is Human Resources (HR) policies that enable women to balance personal and work requirements because so many working women are also mothers and caregivers. A first step toward attracting more women is to assess HR policies to weed out those which make it difficult for women to achieve work-life balance, like inflexible work scheduling and leave time.

The Liftstream survey found that women are actually turning down opportunities to accept top-level management positions because they fear not being able to meet family needs. Many men react to this by falling back on their biases and telling themselves that women are not committed enough to hold high-level leadership positions. Hiring managers use this logic to keep women out of positions, rather than asking if the company needs to change its policies and add things like flex time.

Recruiting and Hiring with Accountability
Two factors mentioned in the survey that explain limited opportunities for women interested in moving into leaders ship positions are: 1) lack of structure in the recruitment and promotion practices; and 2) the influence of unconscious bias.

As is always true, change begins at the top, but in this case, it can also start with recruiters and recruitment practices. With the backing of the C-suite, recruiters can implement bold recruiting practices that attract talented and capable women. Recruiters can create new networks, design referral programs targeting women, utilize internal networks for referrals, always include a percentage of women on the list of candidates presented to hiring managers, and look for qualified female candidates outside the traditional recruitment avenues.

The key to progress is holding recruiters and managers accountable for results. It has to be both. Progress is never possible if recruiters present qualified female candidates that hiring managers proceed to overlook in favor of male candidates. The same holds true for internal promotions.

Metrics are critical to driving changes in behaviors. Sodexo does not rely on traditional recruiting processes. The company relies on a methodical approach in which every step of the HR process is scrutinized and measured. It is a purposeful process which refuses to allow bias to keep women out of biotechnology. Sodexo also uses transparency to hold managers accountable for results and promote a culture of gender inclusion. Performance results are published and manager bonuses are tied to diversity goals.

The truth is that there could be a much higher percentage of women on boards, in executive positions, in management positions, and in talent pipelines working their way up to holding such positions. Corporations must want to make true progress by finding honest solutions to overcome what they see as challenges. All the reasons given for lack of gender balance in biotechnology in companies around the world frequently reflect a failure to make the business case for hiring women and to use data-driven decision-making to pinpoint issues and challenges.

Ideally, corporate strategies are integrated with higher educational strategies to increase the number of qualified female STEM workers. However, there are many qualified women available now. It is a matter of wanting to hire and retain women because it is good for women, society, and the business.