Life sciences needs to better address gender gap to succeed

25 May 2016 8 min. read

A new report finds that life sciences companies, while stating that they value diversity and that they are seeking improvement, continue to underperform in bringing women into executive positions, with few and insufficient measures in place to improve the situation. In light of the value mixed cultures and thinking can bring to boardrooms and operational performance, bolstering diversity should become a key objective.

The gender parity gap has been making headlines in recent months and more and more research from within the businesses sector highlights not merely the continued presence of the gap, but also that there is a substantial businesses case for reducing that gap. According to a McKinsey study, an achievable level of gender parity could add $12 trillion to the global economy. Recent analysis by the World Economic Forum, however, finds that, at the current rate, it will take 117 years to close the gender gap, which is 38 years longer than reported in the WEF’s 2014 report.
In a new report, titled ‘You think gender diversity has nothing to do with performance in life sciences? Think again’, EY explores gender parity issues within the life sciences. The report is developed from interviews with 51 senior life sciences executives from 14 countries. Respondents were 51% female and 49% male and averaged 50 years of age. Nearly 60% have worked in life sciences for their entire career.

Financial performance in Life Sciences

Life changes
Changes are afoot within the life sciences industry, in response to disruptive trends within the sector. Global health care reforms require companies to demonstrate how their products improve patient outcomes, lower costs or both. The vast majority (96%) of leaders understand the need for change; however, where 73% of women strongly agree on the need for change, only 52% of men feel the same way.

The vast majority (96%) also believe that diversity in thought will be necessary for companies to transform themselves, while 72% believe greater gender diversity on the leadership team improves financial performance, and 72% believe greater gender diversity on the leadership team improves financial performance. The survey, according to the authors, suggests that companies with more women in leadership positions perform better financially.

Diversity in Life Sciences

Career disconnect
The changes in expectations from different stakeholders, payers, providers, patients and regulators, will require the evolution of new business models to meet those needs, and that without change, the respondent’s accord that their businesses will either fail to thrive or fail altogether. While 90% see the need for new leadership skills in the future, 73% say they need to attract, retain and promote talent and 53% agree that women are the single biggest underutilised pool of talent in the industry – underpinning that concrete steps to leverage female talent appear to be failing.

As it stands, 20% of organisations have a structured, formal programme to identify and develop women’s careers in leadership, while only 4% are planning to introduce such a programme in the coming years. Furthermore, around 13% have an informal programme in place to support high potential female talent into leadership, while only 47% say that they develop women and male talent equally in their leadership programmes and do not intend to change them.

Diversity measures in Life Sciences industry

The research finds that, not merely do organisations have few leadership programmes in place, they also lack information about the success of programmes and the status of women within their organisation more widely.

Currently, 75% of organisations track the proportion of women in their leadership teams, while 50% track employee engagement by gender. Retention too is not well documented, with 35% tracking it actively, while only 20% know how many of their applicants for senior positions were from women. When it comes to pay, another area in which considerable disparity remains, only 20% measure the disparity.

Effectiveness of diversity strategies

Diversity strategies
As life sciences companies advance boldly into a patient-centric, digitally driven future, they see a dramatic need to change their approach to attracting, retaining, engaging and promoting talent. Among survey respondents, 73% agree on this need. However, considerable differences and deficiencies exist in both attracting and retaining talent. 42% of women respondents say that their organisation is better able to attract women, compared to 28% of men. Men and women are in agreement that their organisations are not very effective in retaining women within their organisation, at 81% and 84% respectively. Organisations are also not good at promoting women into leadership positions.

Barriers to diversity in life sciences

Major barriers
A conflict between perceived barriers that limit the potential of women, was found among the respondents. Almost 30% of women cited organisational bias, which, given that more than 50% of men believe that leadership conflicts with raising a family, and 40% believe there is a shortage of candidates, may be partially correct. Around 30% of women respondents, 20% less than men, perceive conflict with raising a family as an issue, and no women believes it is the result of a shortage of available female candidates.

Another area in which there is considerable disconnect is in support from senior leadership, cited as a barrier by almost 30% of women and slightly more than 10% of men. A lack of support network was cited as an issue by 20% of women respondents, and 5% of male respondents.

“Life sciences leaders know they need to reimagine their business models to meet the evolving needs of payers, providers, patients, consumers and regulators. They also understand that without change, their businesses will either fail to thrive or fail altogether. Yet, despite valuing diversity, many life sciences organisations are currently not addressing the gender gap in a way that will deliver the real change that is needed to succeed,” says Kim Ramko, EY Global Life Sciences Advisory Services Leader. “As life sciences companies transform themselves to meet the expectations of a rapidly changing landscape, they must reconsider their existing recruitment models to attract and retain women and diverse groups to their workforce. This means making it a priority at the board level and investing in initiatives to achieve a truly diverse workforce.”

Last year EY performed a similar analysis for the power & utilities industry.