Preach It, Bob: MassBio Addresses Biotech's Gender Gap

MassBio recently made GenderAvenger news by implementing a policy to encourage diversity at industry events. The policy bans all-male panels at MassBio events and prohibits staff from sitting on all-male panels at outside events.

The "right thing to do" = a sound, evidence-based business decision.

We learned that this policy is just one step in the organization’s efforts to shift diversity and inclusion from being the “right thing to do” to being recognized as a sound, evidence-based business decision.

Led by President & CEO Bob Coughlin, MassBio is a not-for-profit membership organization that represents over 1100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, and related organizations. Massachusetts is a major global biotech hub, so when MassBio talks diversity, people listen, and Coughlin is really passionate about moving the needle on gender in his industry.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that on any issue, if you want to make change, you lead your way through it. At MassBio, we try and lead by example.” Women represent 50% of MassBio’s newly elected Board members and 30% of the overall board.

Diversity and inclusion should be the backbone of company policy.

Rather than viewing diversity and inclusion as a discreet HR initiative, Coughlin firmly believes it should be the backbone of company policy from the top down. In order to figure out what constitutes a successful policy in biotech, MassBio did its homework first and conducted a study along with their partner Liftstream to find out why women weren’t advancing at the same rate as men.

They found that the gender ratio is roughly equal for entry level positions, but it soon diverges, with the gap growing wider at every level of leadership, until it becomes a chasm at the top. Just 1 woman for every 9 men sits on a board of directors at Massachusetts biotech companies, according to their study.

Finding solutions to stem the drop-off in the leadership pipeline is critical.

So, why is the leadership pipeline so leaky when it comes to women? MassBio’s research shows that there is no one reason but rather an accumulation of factors that disrupt women’s career paths, and it varies from organization to organization. Finding solutions to stem the drop-off is critical, as senior leadership positions feed the C-suite and board positions currently dominated by men.

Armed with data, MassBio developed recommended actions that companies can take to improve gender diversity, recruitment, retention, and company culture, but with the caveat that one size doesn’t fit all. Coughlin advocates for an inclusive process: “We feel that the biggest impact a company can make is to look at all these opportunities for change and engage their employees. See what combination of actions work best for your company.”

As for the prohibition of all-male panels, Coughlin piloted the policy himself for a year before making it official. Reflecting on past speaking engagements, he tells me that “If you are going to highlight people that are in leadership positions, there’s men, there’s women, there are people of different ethnic backgrounds, different religions, different sexual orientations. I’ve always found that the more diverse a panel, the better the discussion is — and the less bored I’ll be sitting on it.”

He started responding to speaking invitations by saying he wouldn’t sit on any panels without women. If the event organizers didn’t deliver, he stood firm until they fixed it, which happened every time.

Once the policy became official, member companies started signing on. “It’s a legitimate movement,” Coughlin says. “I guarantee if you see an all male panel a year from now, it’s going to be embarrassing. No one is going to want to be a part of it.”

Be intentional, work harder, and think broadly.

Coughlin’s mantra is to be intentional, work a little harder for change, and think more broadly:

“Let’s not do what seems easy and convenient. If you really care about your business and you really want to be successful, why the heck would you not put 110% effort into creating the most diverse organization that you can possibly have? It’s a fact that the outcomes will be better. Get your head out of your butt and start making good business decisions.”

Preach it, Bob. We’re with you.

Bob Coughlin

Bob Coughlin, MassBio President & CEO, has a mission to advance Massachusetts' leadership in the life sciences to grow the industry, add value to the healthcare system, and improve patient lives. Before joining MassBio, he served as the Undersecretary of Economic Development within Governor Deval Patrick's administration, and he has also held senior executive positions in the environmental services industry, capital management and venture capital.