10 Recommendations for closing the gender gap in the life sciences and healthcare sector
<p>March 8 was <strong>International Women’s Day</strong>: a great time to remember a gender gap that, at the current pace, would take us 136 more years to close. The situation is better in the life sciences and healthcare sector than other industries, but inequalities remain in areas like salaries and access to executive positions, among many others. <a href="https://www.biocat.cat/sites/default/files/2023_report_gendergaplife_sc…; target="_blank">A report drafted by Biocat at the behest of the<strong> Catalan Ministry of Equality and Feminisms</strong></a> compiles and analyzes this data and proposes recommendations to overcome them. We look at the highlights in this post with some women from the sector who took part in the report.</p>
The report The gender gap in the life sciences and healthcare sector: situation, challenges and recommendations, data from which was featured in the BioRegion Report, included a participative process with stakeholders from the public and private arenas, through two focus groups and interviews with professionals from research centers, universities, public institutions and companies in the sector.
The report proposes ten measures that could be implemented in the sector by 2025. “They are ten actions to tackle challenges that we all, in the private and public arenas, have to accept as our own,” highlights report coordinator and Biocat Director of Science Policy and Internationalization Montse Daban. “Drafting this report has allowed us to compile information we had identified, analyze it at the behest of a Ministry of the Government of Catalonia, contextualize it under the framework of the National Pact for Industry 2022-2025, collaborate with the Government of Catalonia on policies and proposals, and identify stakeholders to work with on implementing some of the most interesting initiatives.” The measures proposed are:
1. Raising awareness of and eliminating gender bias in educational and professional environments
Gender bias can still be found everywhere. “Beyond explicit male chauvinism, which is becoming less common, there is a much more subtle type of sexism,” warns UOC Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research Marta Aymerich. Some bias is so subtle it can even seem positive, like the idea that women are better at reporting and organizational tasks. “That means tasks like organizing congresses or writing reports fall mainly to women, who have to take time out from their work or research, with the resulting negative impact on their careers,” notes Maruxa Martínez, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion coordinator at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park.
Among other actions, the “La bretxa de gènere al sector de life sciences i la salut” report proposes making the population more aware of gender issues, starting with the youngest; promoting training on gender bias in companies and institutions, including gender microaggressions. An example? “Men often prioritize other men and their contributions over women; not on objective grounds but because they feel closer to them, they have more in common,” notes Maruxa Martínez. “Taking into account that positions of power tend to go to men, these biases keep power in the hands of men,” she added.
The report also recommends incentivizing ‘the use of inclusive language, for example in job offers’ as Carlos Sistenas, director of Fenin Catalunya, said during the focus group held with agents from the private sector; checking workplaces and educational centers for situations that are hostile to women; and creating roles and spaces within the company for emotional management and conflict resolution.
2. Decisive action with policies and funding to apply a gender perspective in all arenas, both public and private
The “La bretxa de gènere al sector de ciències de la vida i la salut” report recommends including gender perspective in the Government of Catalonia action plan with a calendar, funding and as a financial priority, with its own line items on the budgets for every department of the Government; establishing incentives and penalties for companies that don’t meet gender parity, particularly in positions of leadership; and expanding criteria to facilitate the participation of women in the public arena.
Gender perspective has already been included transversally in the new National Pact for Industry (PNI) 2022-2025. This agreement to transform the industrial model in Catalonia includes a strategic goal to “Create quality industrial employment to reach a total of 510,000 people on the Social Security rolls and for women to make up 33% of the total.” Plus, the gender perspective is incorporated transversally throughout the themes the Pact is broken down into, although it is most present in the third: “Quality employment, work conditions and training for female employees in industry”. The actions are supported by 8 interventions with a total budget of €655,000 for 2022-2025.
3. Encouraging female presence in STEM areas
In Catalonia, women represent only one in four students of subjects like Engineering and Architecture, for example. “We’ve grown up in a patriarchal system that makes us believe that there aren’t more female engineers or male nurses because we have chosen that freely without any cultural conditioning from beliefs and upbringing,” UOC Vice President Marta Aymerich laments. In reality, many young women aren’t drawn to these professions because gender stereotypes stop them.
So, the “La bretxa de gènere al sector de ciències de la vida i la salut” report recommends strengthening equality training and education for the coming generations, raising the visibility of female role models or holding workshops, chats and congresses in collaboration with universities and professional study centers to awaken young women’s interest in STEM professions.
4. Eliminating the glass ceiling and closing the gender scissors in academia and research
All Catalan universities and research centers have a gender plan, but female presence is lacking in leadership and decision-making positions. At CERCA centers, women make up 55% of all predoc researchers but only 28% of heads of research groups in the life sciences and healthcare: this is known as the gender scissors.
“It’s based on many factors,” explains AQuAS Director of Research Paula Adam, who first promoted the concept of the gender scissors. “Values traditionally associated with masculinity (like competitiveness and hierarchical leadership) are predominant, the distribution of roles is deeply ingrained (women are given invisible tasks that are less highly regarded), it is difficult to balance family responsibilities and the demands of higher scientific positions, and the assessment and selection system is still subject to biases that must be corrected.”
Plus, the glass ceiling feeds itself. “If young women don’t see female executives, they tend to think there isn’t any room for them either,” warns Maruxa Martinez of the PRBB. “Masculinization of the workplace can make women feel unwelcome, and the ‘in group’ effect means men make it harder for women to reach these positions or feel comfortable there if they do make it.”
That’s why Paula Adam, of AQuAS, calls for initiatives “that encourage other models of masculinity and more collaborative, empathetic ways of doing science,” and for a review of the science assessment system “to eradicate biases and the lack of focus on impact and transformation.” The goal? “For organizations to take up the mission of correcting the gender scissors as an innovation challenge, and for people to change their mental model.”
If there are only men in decision-making positions, 50% of the perspective is lost and for the world of research and innovation this is bloody, reminds us Anaïs Le Corvec, director of the European Council of BioRegions, who participated in the two focuses groups with her public-private and international vision. Marta Aymerich, UOC Vice-rector, agrees, research today is “a leaky pipe” (in terms of talent). How can we fix it? The Biocat Report recommends encouraging assessment of skills and achievements with a gender perspective, incorporating quotas or positive discrimination into competitive funding, proposing shared leadership, generalizing inclusive language in calls, and guaranteeing quotas are met and only moving forward with selection processes for positions of responsibility once a minimum percentage of women have been included.
5. Boosting the role of women in the technological environments of the future
The lack of women in STEM studies is reflected in employment. One figure: at the two one-of-a-kind large-scale facilities in the BioRegion of Catalonia, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and the ALBA Synchrotron, women only make up 26% and 28% of staff, respectively.
“It will take at least two more generations to reach parity in more masculinized deeptech sectors in Catalonia,” predicts Esther Riambau, co-founder and CEO of Oniria Therapeutics and co-founder and board member at Gate2Brain. Riambau believes “Schools are doing a good job and fostering equality will yield fruit in the coming generation, but families have to reinforce the messages with tangible acts and more equal distribution of family responsibilities.”
“We have to incentivize equal representation of genders in all deeptech public and sector events, and nothing is better encouragement than funding,” adds Riambau. This is one of the recommendations in the report, which also proposes training and attracting women who want to join the technology sector, corporate and administrative incentives to promote women in deeptech companies and equal access to technical training.
6. More female executives and women in decisive positions in industry
According to Farmaindustria, more than 53% of those employed in this industry are women, but only 20.3% of positions of leadership are held by women. The figures are better for biotech, where according to AseBio women make up 59% of staff and 30.2% of executive teams.
Riambau is skeptical about “forced parity policies” because “the authority that comes with certain positions tends to be associated with respect, credibility and prestige, which can be questioned if these policies are obligatory.” She does, however, defend encouraging women to apply for positions of greater responsibility.
In this sense, the report recommends actively raising the visibility of women in positions of reference; promoting professional networks and meeting spaces for women; making them visible on social media; incentivizing female mentoring and corporate volunteering where women support other women; offering specific leadership training; selecting more women as independent experts on boards of directors for startups; or promoting mechanisms to call out discrimination, among other actions.
“Women who have set up companies and hold executive positions can help in several ways,” highlights Aromics founder and CEO Carme Plasencia, “boosting the visibility of female role models; sharing inspiring stories from our careers, specifically in technological areas that are traditionally more masculine; with specific training programs and mentoring; and by creating communities of women working in similar areas.”
“It’s very important to have role models who can help us grow, make us feel capable of doing things and progressing,” confirms Esther Riambau. “I’m lucky to have had many role models and professional mentors, both men and women, who have helped me along the way. Now I’m giving back to society by mentoring new generations.”
7. More startups by women growing and scaling up SMEs
Catalonia is the second region in the European Union in number of women on startup founding teams or among their founding or executive teams, according to data from ACCIÓ.
On average, for the past 5 years, roughly 32% of health startups in Catalonia are led by women (occupying upper management or “C-Suite Level” positions). Here biopharma (37%) stands out, followed by Medtech (35%) and digital health (28%). According to data compiled by the Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation venture capital funds women hold 12.4% of partner or director positions, even though they make up 24.4% in the biotechnology arena.
“We still need more investment and venture capital funds led by women or with a balance of women and men on the team, especially in executive positions, with active participation in making decisions and assigning the funds to invest,” says Carme Plasencia.
The report recommends encouraging the presence of women with gender training on decision-making committees; introducing benefits for Women Ventures and specialized venture capital led by women and with a gender or femtech focus; promoting Women Fast Tracks: specific instruments from the public administration for short- and long-term guidance for creating and consolidating startups led by women; temporary financial support to complement or ensure salaries for women who want to be entrepreneurs until they start to turn a profit; a cooperative international platform of startups led by women where they can support each other and their companies; visibility for startups promoted or led by women in debate forums and presentations
8. Greater transparency on gender perspective in companies, from startups to SMEs
The salary gap is still real: for example, according to data from the Spanish Statistical Office, the difference in average salary for men and women at pharmaceutical companies was 10% in 2019.
The report recommends implementing gender quotas in all selection processes; actively working to ensure salary equality; facilitating measures for work/life balance (grants, leave
or reductions in working hours) and reviewing the company’s policies (work hours, leave, telecommuting, etc.); positive discrimination and effective equality plans and follow-up measures; women with gender training on decision-making committees; training on prevention of physical and psycho-social risks with a gender perspective.
“It is clear that any business starting out takes an enormous amount of dedication (representing the company, international visibility, commercial aspects, business trips, etc.) and that has a significant impact on personal and family issues: we have to find measures to strike a good work/life balance,” says Carme Plasencia.
Riambau notes, however, that “work/life balance policies shouldn’t be designed only with women in mind; they have to normalize men making use of them more and more too.”
9. Government monitoring of compliance with measures in the public and private sectors
How can we make sure all of these recommendations are really put into practice? The “La bretxa de gènere al sector de ciències de la vida i la salut” report recommends setting up a table with social stakeholders to analyze the barriers and call attention to advances; empowering gender observatories to follow up on and ensure compliance with gender policies; creating inspection mechanisms to assess the salary gap in the public sector and agreeing on an oversight framework with business stakeholders in the private sector.
10. Reward gender perspective throughout the value chain
The gender gap is also clear in professional recognitions in the sector. For example, the National Research Awards granted by the Government of Catalonia have only gone to three female scientists (9% of the laureates) in the highest category since 1990, and projects led by female researchers only made up 24% of the grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) in the Catalan knowledge system through 2021. There is also good news: these figures are up in recent years and there are good practices already in place, like the Government of Catalonia Narcís Monturiol awards for research that ensure gender parity on the assessment committee, ‘where gender parity is ensured both in the granting of awards and in the composition of the evaluation committee", reminds us Xavier Lasauca, participating in the focus group as a member of the Comissió Dones i Ciència del Consell Interuniversitari de Catalunya.
In order to reward compliance with the recommendations above, the “La bretxa de gènere al sector de ciències de la vida i la salut” report recommends incentivizing quotas; raising awareness of good practices at centers and companies with success stories and awards; explicit recognition and visibility for companies that promote female leadership; lines of credit with gender perspective; tax benefits for hiring women for executive positions; creating a quality seal for startups to access specialized funding; and accountability with specific measures to monitor the practices. “The document looks at good practices in our system and international models,” notes Montse Daban, Biocat coordinator of the report. “And in this regard, the report itself is a good practice, identified by the European Commission as an initiative to include among support actions being carried out by sector institutions on the New European Innovation Agenda, which among other goals aims to boost female leadership and entrepreneurship in European deeptech.”
Read the report "The gender gap in the life sciences and healthcare sector: situation, challenges and recommendations" (available in English and Catalan)