A bill that made its way through the California House and Senate is now sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, waiting to be signed. If that happens, public companies headquartered in California would be required to have at least one woman on their boards of directors by the end of 2019; companies whose boards have five or more directors will need to include two or three women by the end of 2021.
The spirit of this legislation is right on target: Boards of directors are woefully under represented by the women and minorities they sell to and serve. In fact, 1 in 4 public companies in California have zero women on their boards. That’s unacceptable.
But this bill — any bill, actually — is the wrong way to fix the problem.
I am a longtime life sciences executive who has worked with hundreds of emerging biotech and digital health companies. I am often in boardrooms or around executive tables where I am an “N of 1,” an incredibly frustrating experience. The irony is never lost on me, considering that women, who are traditionally the chief care decision-makers at home, aren’t given the opportunity to make these decisions at the highest level in the health care and life sciences industries.
I really want to applaud this bill. But I believe there are aspects of it that are flawed, and must be addressed.
For starters, when building a new company, diversity should be a priority from inception and should continue through all stages of development — long before a public board of directors comes into view. This includes the period when a company raises its first external financing, as it will inevitably be required to give board seats to several of its venture capital partners, the vast majority of whom are men. In addition, board seats often come with requirements around executive-level experience and prior board experience. If women lack C-suite experience, their chances of making it to the board level are greatly diminished.
And let’s not forget about the women executives this bill aims to please. As a female CEO surrounded by female executive peers and clients, I can confidently say that none of us want a seat at any table that is granted solely on the basis of gender.
At best, the bill is misguided. At worst, it’s insulting.
As a gay woman, I’m particularly concerned at how the focus of this bill will affect other marginalized groups. Gender is an important aspect of diversity, but it’s not the only one. We should not elevate women as a priority over ethnicity, age, or sexual identification.
However misdirected, the intentions of this bill are warranted at a time when women are being left out of decision-making at the highest level of the health care and life sciences industries. This not only affects the chances of success for women and their families but, just as important, the industry’s chances of success in developing new and important treatments and products that truly meet women’s needs.
There are, of course, strong industry examples of women who successfully advanced in these industries. I’ll never forget the time venture capitalist Wende Hutton was questioned by a male audience member when she was speaking on a panel about diversity. The man, who suggested it was difficult to find qualified female executives, wanted advice on what to do. “Try harder,” she answered. Hutton and her team at Canaan definitely try harder — the venture firm boasts one of the most gender and racially diverse teams, and many of their portfolio companies are similarly diverse.
Daré Bioscience, a women’s health biotech, is another exemplary company, as four out of its six directors are women. And while Daré is a women’s biotechnology company, this does not guarantee diversity in the C-suite or board room. Take a look at Revlon, one of the country’s oldest providers of cosmetics for women, which just appointed its first female CEO since its founding in 1932.
The California board seat bill does not address what our industry really must alter to achieve diversity. To drive true, lasting change, our industry needs more movement and momentum than what the bill offers. We need anti-bias training for senior executives and hiring managers. We need better and equitable maternity and paternity leave policies. We need equal pay. And we need the venture capital community to prioritize diversity where it has lagged behind.
True change will come only when we adopt a comprehensive approach to diversity for everyone, not with a signature on bill that mandates a quota.
Carin Canale-Theakston is CEO of CanaleComm, a California-based communications company that works with life science and digital health companies.