AN DIEGO — Biotech has a gender problem. And it’s particularly acute here in San Diego.
This is one of the biggest hubs for life sciences in the country, yet just 2 percent of biotech companies here have a female CEO, according to a report released Wednesday by Liftstream, a United Kingdom-based executive recruitment firm.
The national average of women in chief executive positions in biotechnology falls closer to 7 or 9 percent, said Karl Simpson, who wrote the report after surveying 44 publicly traded biotechs in San Diego — and finding just one female CEO, Halozyme’s Helen Torley.
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“It’s kind of crazy, but it’s true — I couldn’t believe it when I found out,” said Magda Marquet, a San Diego life sciences investor and founder of Althea Technologies, a contract research organization.
The gender imbalance is a function of the life sciences ecosystem in San Diego: It’s mostly a breeding ground for startups. The venture capitalists who fund those startups, and who guide decisions on corporate leadership and board composition, are predominantly male.
“It’s a biotech boys club — and then they’re the ones that hire the CEOs,” said Wendy Johnson, the former president and CEO of San Diego’s Aires Pharmaceuticals. She’s currently on the board of two public biotechs in San Diego.
Another factor: San Diego companies tend to be smaller than those in rival hubs like San Francisco or the Boston area, and they often focus on discovery more than on commercialization. While they’re in those early stages, there’s less pressure on the companies to recruit women to leadership; they operate under the radar, with just a handful of employees, and they hire for very specific skill sets.
About 9 percent of the biotech board directors here are women, the study found.
“I don’t see much in the way of public companies here being active in looking for diversity on boards,” Johnson said.
“In terms of board participation, you tend to always see the same women — maybe 10 of us,” said Marquet, who mentors women in life sciences leadership. “There aren’t a lot of new faces.”
Gender diversity has been a hot topic in the life sciences community this year. A now-infamous cocktail party held during January’s JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco helped highlight the gender gap: LifeSci Advisors received a spate of bad press for hiring scantily-clad cocktail waitresses to entertain party-goers — explaining that, otherwise, the crowd would have been overwhelmingly male.
Some companies are trying to improve opportunities for women. Mary Glanville, a human resources vice president at Regulus Therapeutics, said the company has “wholeheartedly tried to recruit females for the board, and it has been really, really tough.”
She chalks it up to a sad truth she’s observed: There are simply more men with the experience, credentials — and desire — to sit on boards and run companies.
Marquet wagers that the issue is generational, and that as time goes on, women will become more prominent on life science management teams.
Glanville said she thinks the broader San Diego life science community would welcome more gender balance: “Even though San Diego is a pretty conservative military city, the life sciences industry here is incredibly liberal and forward-thinking and progressive,” she said. “It’s not a chauvinistic scene.”