Women Make Their Mark As Top Executives In Biotech Industry

Being a company president-a job that entails handling day-to- day operations-or a chief executive officer (CEO)-who manages all aspects of a business-involves a unique combination of managerial skills. These roles are especially challenging for women, who are rare at corporate helms, particularly in the two-decade-old biotechnology industry. As biotech matures, the percentage of women at the top is growing. "Biotech is a relatively young industry. People are still working their way up. But we a

Nov 24, 1997
Ricki Lewis

Being a company president-a job that entails handling day-to- day operations-or a chief executive officer (CEO)-who manages all aspects of a business-involves a unique combination of managerial skills. These roles are especially challenging for women, who are rare at corporate helms, particularly in the two-decade-old biotechnology industry. As biotech matures, the percentage of women at the top is growing. "Biotech is a relatively young industry. People are still working their way up. But we are starting to see more and more women in top positions," observes Cynthia Robbins-Ross, editor-in-chief of Bioventure Publishing Inc. in San Mateo, Calif., which compiles an annual survey of women in the biotechnology industry.

MANY GOALS: Becton Dickinson Immunocytometry Systems' Deborah Neff notes several management challenges that exist in large companies.
The percentages of women among the higher ranks in biotech are low. According to Bioventure's Women in Biotechnology Survey for 1995, only 5 percent of the top 100 publicly held biotech companies had female CEOs, and 15 percent had women in top management (vice president and up). The 1996 figures, still being analyzed, are very similar, according to Robbins- Ross. Other evidence is anecdotal. One female president/CEO reports that recently she was among the few women biotech CEOs at a weekend retreat. Spouses came along, and at the dinner, everyone assumed her husband was the biotech CEO.

Women rarely lead biotech companies, Robbins-Ross says, simply because they haven't in the past. "It is primarily a corporate culture thing. If management is attuned to actively thinking of women as candidates for these positions, they will eventually fill these positions. But people look for people for these positions through their networks, which are made up of guys."

It is a difficult pattern to break. "I don't believe that men intentionally discriminate, but I do believe that managerial jobs are traditionally occupied by men. Therefore, if a woman comes in, they have to look at you, evaluate and examine you, more carefully than they would another man," says Irene Chow, president and CEO of publicly held GeneLabs Technologies Inc., a diagnostics developer in Redwood City, Calif.

Opinions vary widely on whether being female presents obstacles to promotion in a biotech company. Some women executives contacted by The Scientist declined to be interviewed, stating that their gender had nothing to do with their success. Yet others say gender has influenced their careers in both positive and negative ways. The effect of gender is often somewhat paradoxical: Being female may make it hard to get started and may require extra work, but once those hurdles are successfully passed, a woman may find herself on a fast track to the top. This is what happened to Chow.

Before being asked to head GeneLabs in 1993, she'd spent 18 years ascending the corporate ladder at Ciba Geigy Corp. in Summit, N.J., and before that, five years at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. The transition from academia to industry was rough. "I felt at a disadvantage being a woman [entering industry] because I had already been an associate professor and assistant dean. At Ciba-Geigy I started as a senior scientist, a much lower level," she recalls. Male academic scientists of the same rank would typically enter industry at a managerial level, she believes. But Chow made the best of the situation and was promoted regularly. "I just worked double and triple hard. But the higher you go, the more you have to prove yourself, and you have to do it more than men," she adds.

Lois Crandall, president and CEO of Genetronics Inc. in San Diego, a manufacturer of electroporation equipment, also jettisoned to the top-more than once (see accompanying story). "At Control Data Corp. [in Minneapolis] in the 1980s, I got four promotions in four years," she recalls. But she believed that she had reached the glass ceiling: "They already had their token female vice president." Thinking that she could not advance further at the company, Crandall put the word out that she was looking to move on and was quickly snatched up as an executive vice president at Medical Wellness Technology Corp., also in Minneapolis.

FEELING INVISIBLE: "I remember being totally ignored and talked around or over," says AgraQuest CEO Pam Marrone of business functions she has attended.
Once they ascend the corporate ladder, women may still perceive gender-related troubles. A problem commonly reported is being made to feel invisible. "I can remember many occasions where I was in meetings and I was totally insignificant to the men," says Pam Marrone, CEO of privately held AgraQuest Inc. of Davis, Calif., which develops microbial natural products. "Other times, at a business function with vice presidents and CEOs who were all men, I remember being totally ignored and talked around or over."

Crandall has a strategy to tackle invisibility: "I say something meaningful that relates directly to the discussion. The guys may ignore you, but once you get the chance to say something, make sure it is defined, succinct, and important. They will realize that they should listen to you, because you have important things to say."

DISTINCTIVE APPROACH: AnaSpec's Anita Hong calls her management style "people-oriented" and intuitive.
Do differences between men and women in temperament and interest affect the corporate environment in biotech companies? Women CEOs say that they do indeed have a distinctive approach to leading. "I think my management style is more people-oriented. I make decisions more intuitively than a man," comments Anita Hong, president and CEO of AnaSpec Inc., a privately held peptide manufacturer in San Jose, Calif.

"Women tend to be more relationship-oriented, and they run their companies that way," says Mary Pat Moyer, president and CEO of InCell Corp. in San Antonio, Texas, which provides cell culture services. Women are more attuned to loyalties and are better at teaming individuals, she maintains. And because women often have more child-related duties than men, women CEOs tend to be especially sensitive to flextime and job sharing and more understanding about employees who have to leave work occasionally to tend to family matters, she adds.

The differences in men's and women's interests may become particularly evident in social settings that bring executives together. But Chow maintains that a woman should not deny who she is to fit in. "I am proud of being a woman, of the way I dress and my behavior," she states. "I don't need to play golf or talk about football unless I'm interested in them. We should be ourselves and be confident." Adds Debby Jo Blank, president of publicly held Cypress Bioscience Inc. in San Diego, which manufactures rheumatology devices: "I'm very comfortable being feminine in my style of thinking and approaching problem solving. Women can be better interpersonally than men and can break down barriers or solve organizational issues."

AgraQuest Inc.

AnaSpec Inc.

Cypress Bioscience Inc.
GeneLabs Technologies Inc.

Genetronics Inc.

InCell Corp. Ltd.
incell@netxpress.com Peptide Technologies Corp.

Another influence on management style is company size. Deborah Neff is president of Becton Dickinson Immunocytometry Systems in San Jose, where she is responsible for 1,100 employees. She says that managing a large company presents special challenges. "As part of a large company, you work within an existing level of expectation concerning personal performance and a set of established values. There is also a level of intracompany collaboration and competition that you have to manage, a large number of relationships to build, and having to learn and navigate the processes and systems already established in the corporation."

WINNING STRATEGY: "Go beyond the job-determine what would add value, and do it," advises Cypress Bioscience's Debby Jo Blank.
A woman president or CEO has an easier time in a smaller biotech firm, where the focus is more external, contend Chow, Neff, and Martha Knight, president and CEO of privately held Peptide Technologies Corp., a manufacturer of peptides in Gaithersburg, Md. "Typically, small business are started by members of minority groups and women, who are disenfranchised from the establishment. Many of the peptide-synthesis companies were started this way, and we are no exception," Knight says.

The women who head biotech companies today rose through the ranks at large pharmaceutical companies or started small ventures from academic labs. These women offer valuable advice.

Blank sums up her winning strategy in just one word: learn. "Try to learn and think about everything. Constantly evaluate people who are good and figure out what it is that they do. Go beyond the job-determine what would add value, and do it," she suggests.

START-UP STORY: Peptide Technologies CEO Martha Knight notes that many peptide-synthesis companies were started by disenfranchised women.
For a successful CEO or president, work must not just be work-"it must be your passion," offers Moyer. But Crandall adds that private time is important, too. "Women need to separate themselves from the business and have a personal life. I sail to exotic places once a year. I plan it, book it, pay for it, and have to take it. That's my time, and that's it. If people say they cannot take a vacation, they are letting the business run them."

Raising a family and heading a company at the same time is often difficult. Chow feels strongly that family commitments are important but are not exclusively a woman's concern. "At Ciba-Geigy, I said that my family was more important than my job, and my male colleagues said, 'Oh, you feel that way because you are a woman.' But I told them that they should feel that way, too."

For Crandall and Moyer, starting their own companies brought in income that was much-needed when they were single parents. But raising children and running a business is difficult even in two-parent families. "Although I have a very supportive husband, I felt I had to be a superwoman in both taking care of the family and being a career woman," says Hong. "When the children were smaller, I had to make sure that they were with good baby-sitters and that their after-school activities were well scheduled."

A final word of advice is to take chances and follow intuition. Risk-taking is key to executive success, CEOs say, especially in an industry as young as biotechnology. "You can't be afraid to fail," notes Crandall. "In biotechnology, you have to learn from failure and go on to the next challenge. Every scientist knows that embedded in a failed experiment are the seeds of success. This is true for business, too."

backgrounds. Here is a look at three such women, representing different- sized companies.

Mary Pat Moyer Founder, President and CEO InCell Corp. Ltd.
InCell Corp. tests potential new drugs in human cell culture systems for pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. The seven-employee, privately held company spun off in 1992 from Mary Pat Moyer's lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where she is still director of the Center for Human Cell Biotechnology.

"Why did I create the company when I was a tenured full professor at a university medical school? In these times of diminishing government support, I did not see that I could assure my well-trained staff of job security," she recalls. "I knew we had strong professional credibility and technical expertise in human cell models and tissue engineering and providing specialized testing services." At the time, Moyer was also a single parent of two children, which affected her decision to start a business. Her ultimate goal: "I want to see something I have worked on get to the clinic."

Lois Crandell President and CEO Genetronics, Inc.
Lois Crandall's path to heading up Genetronics Inc., a San- Diego based manufacturer of electroporation equipment with 70 employees, was unusual. She earned a B.A. in English and had intended to teach but married and had two children instead. After a divorce, she retrained in a field that would pay well- in the 1960s, that was defense. Retooled as an electronics technician, she worked on torpedoes for Honeywell Corp. in Minneapolis.

In the 1970s, Crandall switched to the medical devices industry and became the only female product manager at Medtronic Inc. While many employees of Medtronic went on to start their own medical devices companies, Crandall founded Crandall Communications Inc. in 1973, at age 29. This public relations firm boasted Medtronic as its major client. Stints at four other companies followed, each a step up. In 1991, she joined Genetronics, first as general manager, then president, then CEO.

Irene Chow President and CEO GeneLabs Technologies, Inc.
Redwood City, Calif.-based GeneLabs Technologies Inc. develops biopharmaceuticals and diagnostics for hepatitis and lupus. It has 160 employees, and an unusual number of executive women-the eight-person management team includes four women and the seven-person board of directors has three women. Irene Chow arrived in 1993. "The company needed somebody with experience at a large pharmaceutical company who knew how to manage and lead people," she says. Chow came to GeneLabs following an 18-year career at Ciba-Geigy in Summit, N.J., where she was promoted regularly. "The biggest hurdle was becoming a vice president. It was not just a female/male problem, but also the problem of M.D.'s having to report to a Ph.D. Then, as senior vice president, I had to become even more aggressive." Chow was both the first female vice president and first female senior vice president of Ciba-Geigy.

Ricki Lewis, a freelance science writer based in Scotia, N.Y., is the author of several biology textbooks. She can be reached online at 76715.3517@compuserve.com.