Tokenism and Bias: Gender Gap in Biotech Boardrooms

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

The number of women who serve on corporate boards of directors is increasing a little at a time in the U.S., but we need more.  According to 2020 Women on Boards—a nonprofit organization that conducts research studies about the gender composition of the boards of directors of U.S. companies—women hold just a small number of board seats.  In 2015, the 2020 Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index of Fortune 1000 companies showed that women hold 18.8% of board seats, a very small percentage “when you consider that: women comprise about half of the total U.S. workforce; hold half of all management positions; are responsible for almost 80% of all consumer spending; and account for 10 million majority-owned, privately-held firms in the U.S., employing over 13 million people and generating over $1.9 trillion in sales.”

In biotech companies, the number of women who serve on boards is even lower.  The title of a Scientific American article published in 2013 says it all: “Women in Biotechnology: Barred from the Boardroom.”  A report released on January 24, 2017, by Liftstream, a London-based recruitment firm, details a study of 177 biotech companies which conducted an Initial Public Offering (IPO) between 2012 and 2015.  As private companies go public, they face increased public scrutiny and different challenges, all of which place new demands on the board.  Thus, Liftstream assessed whether companies took advantage of the transition process and diversified their boards by including more women.

The report (A Public Reality for Women in Biotech Boardrooms) found that only one in ten of all board positions are held by women—this number remains unchanged across small and medium size companies throughout the biotech sector.  On a positive note, the report found that almost 58% of the studied boards now have women serving on them.

The report also found that within various board committees, women serve on more than one committee.  However, women are mostly seen on audit committees, suggesting they are appointed for technical expertise, and are rarely seen on the most influential committees, thus indicating that tokenism—the practice of making only a symbolic effort in offering equal opportunities to underrepresented groups—might be responsible for their inclusion.   Indeed, according to the report, the influence of women over the board’s future appointments and direction is not growing as expected on the basis of their increasing presence on boards.  Thus, these women might be unable to shift the pattern of board appointments towards increased women representation.  All together, the new data point out to a still pervasive presence of gender bias in biotech.

In 2015, a Nature Biotechnology editorial asked: “No matter where you look in biopharmaceutical boardrooms, gender bias is evident.  Is it so difficult to actually acknowledge this pernicious bias and actively discourage all-male boards?”  The data provided by the Liftstream report seem to provide a “yes” answer: “yes, it is difficult.”  The report also shows that to reach 30% by 2025 (30% women on biotech boards), 255 women would need to be added to the studied boards. This is a significant number, if we consider that only 15 women were added in the last 4 years.

Gender bias is a complex issue.  It seems to elude viable solutions that apply to all settings.  However, women are taking action.  Newly developed programs, such as the innovative Women in BioBoardroom Ready“, are preparing women for their roles on biotech boards, and are expected to make a real difference in achieving greater gender diversity.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. How do we handle the nay sayers and employers that don’t want to take a risk? I believe that the Boardroom Ready program is wonderful and is a gateway to helping women prepare for senior positions. The only reservations that I have about the program is how would the program help women who are already involved in a corporation and would like to move up the ranks, or how would the program help women who have not been matched with board seats?

    Executives in higher positions should learn to take a chance on women leaders and appoint them to positions that they are qualified for, instead of their male counterparts. Women are seen as gently and dainty. As people who are supposed to be nice and unable to pull the trigger when it comes to making tough decisions. If asked, who we think is more likely to make quick and decisive decisions that are best for the company, but necessarily best for the employees, female are usually not the gender that comes to mind for executives. Females are stereo-typically supposed to be empathetic and caring, unable to make harsh decisions. However, it is unfair to make this assumption and not give women the chance to prove otherwise.

    In order to shift the corporate world, more women need to be in more senior position in order to act as role models for women who want to climb the corporate ladder, but may not know how. The Boardroom Ready program is an excellent program for women who want to be in more senior roles and need help finding them, however, how do we make these senior positions equally open to women as they are for men. A problem has to be present if programs to combat tokenism exist to help women, My quiry is how do we convince more individuals that women should be hired and placed in more senior roles, not because of a quota or to make the company look good for hiring females, but because these women desire the recognition that comes with executive appointment.

    • Hi Igbukun,

      I love your post, it is very insightful. I just wanted to add a different perspective on one of the concerns that you discussed in your post.

      You stated: “Executives in higher positions should learn to take a chance on women leaders and appoint them to positions that they are qualified for, instead of their male counterparts. Women are seen as gently and dainty. As people who are supposed to be nice and unable to pull the trigger when it comes to making tough decisions.”

      Like many of us know, there are two sides to the sword, which many people have discussed already, that women and men need to be educated about their biases and reservations. Concerning the statement above, I believe we as women should sometimes take these labels and characteristics on.

      To be gentle, dainty, nice and unable to make tough decisions, are labels that were given to us by society. And many women accept them. This is not only seen in gender roles, but in races and religion. There are old stereotypes that society has forced upon different people. But we have the choice to accept it or reject it. As a woman I can think “How do I want to be perceived by others? Who do I want to be?” There in fact are women who fit the words that you described above, but there are also men like this as well. Would either of them be seen as good leaders by their superior, maybe not. The problem is not that these people are the way that they are, because everyone doesn’t want to take the leadership role. The problem is that more women are taking these labels on, not because they want to but because they think they are supposed to.

      We shouldn’t be given opportunities for the sake of giving an opportunity. But we should be given the opportunity because we earned it and our superior sees our potential. If I am showing that I do not work well with groups, do not step up for leadership positions, and do not speak up in group meetings about my ideas, I would not want my superior to recommend me for a leadership position. Not because I don’t believe I deserve it, but because I wouldn’t be ready. Even if I am doing those things because I am a woman and I feel like people don’t believe in me, it’s my job to believe in myself first. Which is why it is very important that in your statement you said “Qualified for.”

    • Kenya,

      I understand that we have a choice to accept or reject the stereotypes that are placed on us, but even if we were to reject the stereotype, that won’t always make a difference if our superiors do not reject that stereotype as well. As we have learned, if a man and a women are both interviewing for the same position and the man boasts about all his accomplishments, he is seen as being confident. However, if a woman was to do the same thing, she would be seen as being arrogant.

      It is true that both men and women are capable of having gently dispositions, and I also agree that more women than men believe that they are supposed to take on a specific role in society. This is why I implore executives to see the potential in women and be aware of biases that are present in the workplace.

    • Ibukun,
      I really like what you had to say in your post – and I agree, that the first step in closing the gender gap and shifting the corporate world to have more women fill in senior positions and empower and inspire other women to do the same and keep on moving up in the corporate world. You have a very good question- how do we open up these senior positions to women without having the purpose be fulfilling some sort of diversity quota or for the company’s own image. I think that the hiring process needs to be reformed in a way which gives equal chances to women to be hired. Remember one of the first classes we had for women’s lead and the activity we did, where we had to choose the best candidates for the job? And the study we looked at saying that even when two candidates had the same credentials, the male counterpart was preferred over the female candidate. All of this is due to biases and gender roles that society teaches us from a young age. I think if somehow the hiring processes were able to be reformed to be more systematic and less open to receive bias (even if it is subconscious) then women would have a greater chance at getting these leadership roles and positions in society and be judged for their qualifications and ability to perform the job, not hired because they are a woman or not hired because they are a woman. What are ways that you guys think the hiring process could be reformed to avoid the biases made by employers and those who go through applications and resumes? Could technology be the answer to eliminating tokenism and our own human biases towards hiring or not hiring women and minorities in the workplace?

    • LittleAcorn,

      I think that a different way to hire employees that could negate would be to do blind interviews where the employer does not know the gender of the interviewee. If all they have to go on is their credentials, then being biased based on gender would be difficult.

  2. It is interesting that women are underrepresented in biotechnology boards. Although I never previously read up on gender issues in STEM related fields, I somehow still inherently knew that men were the preferred sex in the field. Most times, at least in my case, I had only seen males representing the STEM field. I have seen male faces in advertisements, movies, shows, etc when a scientist or engineer is depicted. This subconsciously taught my mind that the STEM field was male dominated and that it was rare for a woman to join. I personally always thought that I would be one of those women to prove society and gender biases wrong. I believed and still believe that if I worked hard enough to truly build my credibility as a scientist, that I would eventually show up all the people around me. I wanted and want to be the best at what I do; it is a personal challenge to surpass those around me, especially the men in a male-dominated field. This does not go to say that I am hateful or do not want men to succeed as well as me, I just want my work and my credibility to be based on merit, not because of what genitalia I was born with. I find it disgusting that there is such thing as tokenism. In this context tokenism to me is basically saying “Hey, we really don’t believe that you (women) can do this, but public scrutiny deems that our committees should have equal representation, so we’re just going to squeeze you ladies in to the least meaningful positions and say, Look! We really do believe in women, see? They hold positions in our company!” when in reality these positions do not prove anything different but further gender bias. Why is it so difficult to simply include intellectual and able women into meaningful positions in the STEM field? It absolutely makes no sense that we are not included simply because of our sex. The fact that these biases are not an outrage to everyone baffles me. Why is it that so many educated and brilliant women are not given the opportunity to share their beautiful minds with the world? Inclusion of women in board rooms, and in male-dominated careers in general, would provide such variance and fresh perspective. Is that not what we need as a society? Fresh, new ideas that can revolutionize life as we know it? Maybe it is because we are so amazing, complex, and intellectual that they do not want us to have the upper hand. Maybe, just maybe, exposing and supporting the ideas of these intelligent, perceptive, intuitive, and sharp women would be too advanced, too awesome for the world to handle.

    • Darina, I whole heartedly agree with your discussion about tokenism. I believe tokenism does two destructive things that hurt our progress. 1) It brews an environment for people to adopt the “imposter syndrome.” 2) It makes society question the abilities of the minority. For example:

      When companies adopt one female (or any minority of any sort) to meet a quota, that person may begin to feel like they are only there because the company or organization had to choose someone and they happened to fit the criteria. The person may feel like it wasn’t their talent, hard work, or experience that allowed them the position. That person may begin to feel like they are inadequate compared to everyone else in the room and feel as though they don’t belong. Imagine how that person would perform in an environment where they feel like an imposter; imagine how fast they would attempt to find a new job or field.

      Because of tokenism, I’ve been told many things such as: “Oh, you won’t have a problem with getting into medical school, you’re black”, “Wow, how did you get all of those internships? Did they target minorities?” Although I know people are not trying to be malicious when they make these statements, they’re still demeaning. It takes away all of the hard work that I put in just as much as, if not more than, other students who are working towards a career. It almost says that I get a “pass.” Statements like these made me look around a room where I was one of two that looked like me and think “Wow am I the token black girl?” Am I that box that they checked? Or did I work my butt off for my GPA, worked for weeks on that essay, and made good relationships and impressed my professors for the great recommendation letters just like everyone else?

      Tokenism not only affects how the person looks at their own abilities, but how other people see them as well. People think they’re doing women a favor, but they’re not. We are just as capable as the next person to work and earn a position. We are not asking for a handout we’re asking to not be pushed back.

    • Darina,

      I agree that tokenism is an awful concept. How can we expect to make any progress when women are not seen as equal partners but instead as symbols?

      I feel like we place a lot of blame on people responsible for promotions and dub women as completely innocent in these matters when that isn’t always the case. We have learned that women often do not reach out for promotions and that they are usually less confident in their skills and qualifications than men. Women should educated on these implicit ideas and pushed to advance in their career fields. With the report of only 1/10 companies having women on boards changing to 58%, a good assumption would be that the people on the boards reached out to women or purposely looked for them and encouraged them to advance. Both sides have to be educated.

    • @Kenya Thrasher

      I had not even thought about how it would feel to be hired into a tokenist position. I would feel so embarrassed and crushed to realize that they chose me to fit this, as you stated, quota position. Not only would you feel like your merit and hard work was underappreciated, but people would indeed underappreciate you. There is bound to be some type of bullying in the workplace that goes on if people were to know that you were hired into that position. People would automatically assume you are incapable of actually performing well in their company, but they deny you the chance to even do so. This reminds me of another forever leaders blog post about bullying: I cannot believe that people actually have spoken to you in this way, Kenya. I appreciate you sharing the experiences you have had with others when discussing your career path. As a woman minority alone, we face a lot of discrimination and demeaning comments that undermine our efforts, ability, and hard work. I, however, cannot even begin to fathom how much harder women of color face derogatory statements like the ones you have mentioned. I am sorry that people have made you feel like your many hours of studying, networking, and hustling were entirely discarded, and you were simply given a free “pass.” Thank you for sharing the things people have said to you, because it allows the rest of us to be more aware of these situations happening. This can equip us – men and women – to recognize the discrimination women of color face, and we can learn to combat these behaviors in people by standing up for the minorities.

  3. The first question that popped into my mind while reading this post was, “Is it our job to take matters into our own hands?”

    It is evident that the progress for including more women on board committees is extremely slow. So what can we do as women in our communities to fix this? Maybe the answer isn’t to wait for others to change their minds about the way they see us, maybe it is now our job to make them change their minds. How can we do this?

    1) Believing in ourselves: How can we expect anyone to believe in our ability to lead when we don’t believe? We need to start taking more risks, asking for raises, stepping up in our jobs.

    2) Speaking up: Stand up for each other. Make this conversation less of a taboo by talking about it with your friends, family and coworkers (male and female).

    3) Education: This goes with the last tip. Talking about the gender gap and our personal biases toward women is the biggest step to ending the problem. Education is not just for men, but also for women. Education equals empowerment. Some women don’t know that they may have a disadvantage or don’t know how to go about counteracting the problem.

    There are definitely more things we can do, I would love to hear from others about what they think we could add/improve this list.

    The second question that came into my mind while reading this is, why specifically is there still a large gender gap in biotech board committees? Why do you think this is so?

    • I agree with you, Kenya. We have to take matters into our own hands. As history has shown, the group being oppressed or discriminated against must first take action to make a change. It is also up to the men in our soicety to also step in and support us women in this struggle. If you think about the Civil Rights Movement: yes black people first made the stand for change. But, it wasn’t until other racial groups joined our cause did we see real change.
      And to answer your inquiry, I believe it first starts with the lack of women in the biotech field as a whole. There can be no equal amount of women leaders in a field in which the group is underrepresented. We must encourage our girls to start pursuing those tech and engineering fields that are so greatly dominated by men.

    • I think that is interesting that your first thought to this post was about taking matters into out own hands. When I first read this post, the first thing that came to mind was “how are women going to work their way to the forefront of companies. I do not think that the reason women do not hold senior positions is because they do not believe in themselves. Yes, this could be a possible cause, but I believe more often as not, women have confidence that they can achieve great heights, but are not given the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Like Semaje said, I think that it important for the men in out society to acknowledge the great work that women do and can do if given the chance.There is only so much a woman can do, but without given the chance to prove herself, believing in herself that she can complete a task goes in vain.

    • I agree with both of you, I can’t believe that we still live in a country with such a big gap in gender in industries. It’s frustrating to see that there are many that do not even care of what is happening. I think one major thing we need to start doing it supporting each other. I see many instances on social media where women are constantly bringing other people down. I don’t see many men doing this so I feel like one of the biggest things we really need to work on are supporting each other.

      For your second question, I’ve always wondered the same as well. I feel like many women are genuinely trying to get into the industry but are overturned. In my bioethics class, I learned that women back in the day weren’t even given credit for the articles they published unless a male was on it. It’s unfortunate, but I feel like we’re still in that era, even though that problem has been fixed, I feel like it’s all a show. Just because one woman has been promoted doesn’t mean the others millions have. It is not equal.

    • Krishna, I like what you said about how just because one woman has been promoted to an executive position, that doesn’t mean that there is equality in the workplace. Equality comes from having more than the current 30% of women in executive positions being raised to 50 %.
      I will agree that it is frustrating that in order for the work done by most women to be acknowledged, a man has to acknowledge it, as if he is the deciding factor for whether or not a female will sink or swim in the workforce. I understand that times are changing and that the voices of women are slowly being heard, but I can’t help but feel that larger strides and bigger changes should be made to accommodate women in the workforce, and help them achieve senior statuses.

      In Lean In, one of the chapters discussed how in some companies there are leadership programs in place that are only available to women. I think this is a wonderful idea that should be implemented in not only companies, but in schools as well. It is important to teach men and women that they are equal from the time that they are young that that no one gender is better than the other when it comes to the workforce. I believe that by doing this, as time progresses, there will be less people that believe that women are incapable of doing the same work as a man, and biases associated with gender will also dissipate because children would have grown up knowing that they were all equal.

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