Women are not ‘chattel’: Open letter urges biopharma to shun sexist firms

An open letter is being circulated urging pharmaceutical and biotech executives not to do business with firms that hire scantily clad women at cocktail parties held during industry conferences.

The impetus for the letter, which was initiated by two women who have high profiles in the biopharma world, was yet “another cocktail party in which inappropriately clad women served as eye candy” during the week-long festivities surrounding the recent JP Morgan health care conference.

The event, which is arguably the most important stomping ground for biopharma executives and investors, attracted some 9,000 people last month to San Francisco, where countless receptions and parties were held in hotels and restaurants dotting the city’s Financial District.

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But increasingly, some women are growing angry at events where firms use women as “sex objects” to woo clients. And so, Kate Bingham, a managing partner at SV Life Sciences, a venture capital firm based in the United Kingdom, and Karen Bernstein, whose company runs the influential BioCentury news site, are urging health care executives to take a public stand against the practice.

“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?” their letter states. “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 as an industry.”

So far, several hundred people have signed the letter, including many “high-ranking” industry names, Bingham told us. “I’ve had senior management from many pharma companies who have heard about this email me and asking how to sign.” The letter — with signatures – will be published in BioCentury as a message to the service firms that are largely responsible for what she called “bad behavior.”

These service firms, she explained, are primarily brokers and investor relations specialists. She was quick to note that the problematic events occur away from the main hotel where JP Morgan hosts the conference.

Their letter cites one party, which was purportedly held by LifeSci Advisors, an investor relations firm, where “young, female models were brought in to escort the guests on buses to the Exploratorium and to mingle with the crowd.” The Exploratorium is a science and art museum that was used by several companies and firms to host receptions last month.

We asked LifeSci Advisors for a response and will update you accordingly.

Whether the missive will change anything is uncertain, at best. But Bingham expressed confidence that going public — and getting many senior executives to support the effort — can alter behaviors. These sorts of complaints “only need to happen a few times,” she said. “If it doesn’t, they won’t keep business, because the firms that behave like this will lose clients. If it hits their wallets, it will change.”

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