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At Biotech Party, Gender Diversity Means Cocktail Waitresses

Outside the Exploratorium, an airy event space on San Francisco’s waterfront, a long line of mostly male biotechnology investors and executives waited to get into a party.

“There are the models!” one man yelled.

And, yes, there they were, in matching short, tight, black dresses with shoulder cutouts. It was the second year in a row that New York-based financial communications firm LifeSci Advisors had thrown the party, balancing out a shortage of women in town for the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference with ones who’d been hired to mingle and hold champagne.

“It’s clearly not how women should be portrayed,” Anna Protopapas, chief executive officer at Mersana Therapeutics Inc., said in San Francisco, as she wrapped up a series of meetings. She’d been invited to the LifeSci party, but had instead gone to one of a number of women-only events that have sprung up around the conference in recent years.

Andrew McDonald, founding partner at LifeSci, said that about 1,000 people attended the firm’s bash -- a much bigger crowd than last year, the first time they had the models.

“Last year, people were just coming to a cocktail party, and the buzz was generated during the party and afterward,” McDonald said in an interview Tuesday. “Obviously for this event this year, people knew what to expect.”

Industry Gathering

The J.P. Morgan conference, held each January, is the health-care sector’s biggest gathering for investors and companies, with 9,000 attendees this year. Biotech is a major focus -- the industry is considered a cradle of innovation, where daring medical entrepreneurs change patients’ lives, and make fortunes.

Yet the event also offers a revealing look at the industry’s lack of gender diversity. The ballrooms of the Westin St. Francis hotel were packed with rows of men in blue and gray suits. Outside the hotel, where attendees gather for coffee, was about the same -- of 47 people sitting on one side of the square outside the conference hotel, two were women. Of those, one was in media relations. There was no line for the women’s bathroom.

LifeSci’s McDonald says it’s just reality that the industry and its investors skew male. That’s why he hired the models.

“When you think about going to a party, when you don’t have any models, it’s going to be 90/10, or even greater, male-to-female,” he said. “Adding in some females changes the dynamic quite a bit.”

No Complaints

McDonald said he got “zero” complaints from anyone offended, and that he’s sensitive to any concerns his clients might have raised. He said there are many women in business development roles in the industry, many of whom asked for invitations. Other clients asked if they could bring their wives. “I made a point to talk to female guests,” he said.

He also said his firm held an event in June when they hired male models in an effort for gender equality. It didn’t go well.

“It was really awkward,” he said. “The male models were just standing around talking to themselves, and they were relatively young relative to the other men at the party. It created a bizarre feeling they didn’t anticipate.”

A spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase & Co. declined to comment. The LifeSci Advisors party isn’t affiliated with the conference and is held off-site.

Few Female Executives

While women earned 39 percent of undergraduate bioengineering and biomedical engineering degrees, and 38 percent of doctorates in those fields in 2011, according to Catalyst, a New York-based research and advocacy group for executive women, it hasn’t translated into top jobs.

Women occupy only 20 of 112 senior management roles at the 10 highest-valued companies in the industry. At small, young companies, it’s not much better -- of the 10 biotech startups that raised the most money in 2014, 19 percent of top executives are women, and their boards are 8 percent female, according to an August editorial in the journal Nature.

“Having the network is so critical,” said Rachel King, CEO of GlycoMimetics Inc. and former chairwoman of the of Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, the industry’s trade group. “We need all kind of diversity in this industry not just because it’s the right thing to do but because that’s how we achieve excellence.”

Top Roles

Illumina Inc. CEO Jay Flatley said his company has struggled to fill top roles with women. The San Diego-based genetics company, worth about $24 billion, lists no female members of its senior management team and just one on the board.

“The frustrating part is that we have had a reasonable amount of senior roles that open up in our company, and the number of women that become candidates is very small,” he said in an interview. “It’s hard.”

The same is true of board seats, Flatley said. When the company tried to find a female director three years ago, he was told it would have a tough time competing with Fortune 500 companies that could pay qualified female candidates lucrative salaries.

“Really, talent is hard to find?” said Wende Hutton, a partner at venture capital firm Canaan Partners, which manages assets worth $4.2 billion. “Well, try some more!" She was in town meeting with large drugmakers about her firm’s portfolio companies.

Women have a difficult time advancing in biotech companies because there’s little support structure for them, said Anna Beninger, Catalyst’s director of research. They often lack women mentors or role models, or are hired for lower-level jobs than men with the same qualifications, and for lower pay. As a result, they’re more likely to leave for other industries.

‘Unwelcoming’

“Executives often use the excuse that women aren’t in the pipeline because they lack the right educational credentials, when in fact these companies are unwelcoming to women,” Beninger said. “When they look above them they see hardly any women who’ve advanced.”

Judy Lieberman is a professor at Harvard Medical School and a member of the scientific advisory board at the biotechnology company Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. Her lab studies one of the hottest areas in biotech -- the immune system’s role in cancer, and how the genetic code’s messenger system may play a role in disease. Yet when she tried to found her own company, it was hard to get an interested audience from mostly male investors, she said.

“When you do something like start a company, if you’re not part of the network, or if people don’t view you as a good boy, they don’t take what you say with the same amount of credibility,” she said. Lieberman got a grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue the work.

No Fishing Trips

Still, there are signs things are changing. Hutton was planning to attend a women-only dinner at the meeting with 85 venture capital executives. That’s quite a change from not long ago, when at an earlier firm she was the only woman among the partners. When the others planned a ski retreat, she wasn’t invited because they thought she’d feel strange as the lone woman.

At Canaan, Hutton said that of the firm’s eight current life-science investors, four are female.

“We don’t plan rental lodge fishing trips,” she said.