The worlds of technology and biotechnology are both fueled by ambitious startup companies, but other than that, they don’t share that much in common – except when it comes to their treatment of women.
Both are old boys clubs that exhibit blatant sexism in their cultures. Each winter, the biotech world descends on San Francisco for the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, an event that brings together pharmaceutical companies touting potential drug breakthroughs and investors who hope to capitalize on them. The event draws more than 9,000 attendees. Most of them are men.
The absence of women at these events was not lost on financial communications firm LifeSci Advisors. The company hosted an after party after the conference this year, and to address the gender balance, it paid models to join the event, dressed in “matching short, black dresses with shoulder cutouts,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Andrew McDonald, founding partner at LifeSci, told the magazine that the reality of the biotech business is that it skews heavily male, and for that reason, he hired the models. The LifeSci party has no affiliation with J.P. Morgan or its conference.
It is true that there is a gender imbalance in biotech. But hiring scantily clad models to pose as eye candy is not the way to address the disparity. News of the party went viral in biotech circles and LifeSci quickly found itself under fire. Karen Bernstein, co-founder and chair of BioCentury Publications and Kate Bingham, managing partner at SV Life Sciences Advisers, penned a scathing open letter that was addressed to the entire biotech and investor communities. “It doesn’t matter who, or what kind of company, organized these events,” they wrote. “If biotech executives attend, they endorse them. That reflects not only on them as individuals, but on us as an industry.”
The letter was not just the reflection of two women. It was co-signed by dozens from across the biotech industry – both men and women.
Next year, the biotech industry will gather in San Francisco for the J.P. Morgan conference, just as always. But one thing is certain. If LifeSci Advisors has another conference after party, there won’t be any models-for-hire in attendance. Following the attention brought to LifeSci’s party, the firm issued an apology, and said it would take action to improve the treatment of women in the industry, according to FierceBiotech. The firm said it will launch a “series of concrete initiatives to address these systemic issues.” LifeSci’s belated response in itself won’t fix the sexism and inequities in the biotech boys club. But it shows that women standing up to the boys club can be heard, and can drive change.