People & Culture

On Leadership

Posted By Nancy Simonian, M.D., CEO

April 30, 2020

By Nancy Simonian, M.D., CEO

Breaking biotech’s glass ceiling must be a joint effort

I’m often asked what it takes to be a successful biotech CEO and, as one of the relatively few female CEOs in our industry, what it takes to break the proverbial glass ceiling.

Before answering the second question, let me briefly address the first.

I believe there are universal traits that influence someone’s rise to and success in leadership roles. A successful biotech CEO needs a strong vision and sense of purpose, resilience and optimism in the face of long odds and countless challenges, the ability to build and inspire a team, the willingness to pivot and – perhaps above all – the ability to lead through uncertainty and failure.

These attributes are not gender-specific, yet women face distinct challenges and barriers, as evidenced by the gaping gender inequity in C-suites and boardrooms in our industry.

I want to stress that I do not claim to speak for all women, nor is it my intent to make sweeping generalizations about men or women. When I entered the industry, there were few women in biotech and next to none in leadership roles. Most of my mentors have been men; and my perspective, like everyone’s, is shaped by my own experiences.

Addressing gender inequity requires discussing and facing sometimes uncomfortable realities. It requires upending traditional norms, unraveling years of social conditioning, and rethinking what we do and how we do it. While there are instances of overt bias, these are easier to recognize and root out. What’s more insidious are the subtle, often unconscious biases that are harder to see – and therefore, harder to change.

Few of us are born with the skills needed to be a CEO. Behind every strong leader is a strong network and supportive mentors – a factor that often works against women because people gravitate toward the familiar. C-suites, boards, and VC firms that fund early-stage biotech companies consist largely of men; their networks consist mostly of men; and they tend to mentor men “like themselves.” When filling a C-level or other high-level position, these decision-makers look to their networks, which don’t include many women.

Style differences between men and women also come into play. Women don’t always put themselves forward as readily as men. In school, I was rewarded for getting good grades, following the rules and playing nicely with others. These attributes later earned me a spot at a top college, medical school, and a residency and academic faculty position. My academic pedigree led Biogen to recruit me to steer the clinical development of Avonex in multiple sclerosis. But if not for the encouragement of a mentor, my path could easily have ended there.

Though eager for growth and new challenges, I didn’t speak up. I thought if I continued to perform well, the promotions and opportunities would come. When a position to head development opened up at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, my mentor urged me to apply. I was reluctant. I didn’t have the experience listed on the job description, but he pushed me, asking me what I had to lose. I got the job, and when I told Biogen’s CEO I was leaving, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me what you wanted?” That experience taught me two important lessons: You have to advocate for what you want, and you have to take risks to get it.

Then there’s the thorny issue of work-life balance. There are no right or wrong choices in these deeply personal decisions. But the notion that women have to choose one at the expense of the other, while men do not, is outdated and also does our male colleagues a disservice.

So what can we do to promote gender equality in leadership roles?

First, we can create awareness with ongoing education to spot and reduce bias, open communication and dialogue, leading by example, and holding individuals accountable for their actions. These efforts need support from the highest levels of the organization.

Indeed, we need buy-in from across the industry. Company executives must recognize the tangible benefits of having a diverse leadership team, among them being a competitive advantage in recruiting. Several recent female hires chose Syros over other opportunities because they saw women in leadership roles.

We need concrete goals and metrics to measure our progress. BIO’s Workforce Development, Diversity & Inclusion Committee, on which I serve, set the following goals: increase the percentage of women in functional leadership and C-level positions to 50 percent and female representation on boards to 30 percent by 2025. At Syros, about half of our functional leaders are women and female representation on our board is approaching 30 percent.

We must also create opportunities for women to enter traditionally male-dominated networks and actively engage in mentorships. Male and female leaders alike should be encouraged to mentor and advocate for women in the workplace.

It is imperative that we rethink our policies and benefits to better support the health and well-being of all our employees, including flexible work schedules, the ability to work remotely, and family leave policies for mothers and fathers.

Like most complex issues, achieving gender equity in biotech leadership will take a consistent and concerted effort over time. While we have much work to do, I am optimistic about the future. The people in our industry are passionate, smart, and dedicated to making a difference. I’m proud to be among them. I’m also proud to be part of the small but growing contingent of women leaders in this industry, and I look forward to the day when I’m no longer one of a few, but one of many.

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