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.
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.
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.
"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.|
WINNING STRATEGY: "Go beyond the job-determine what would add value, and do it," advises Cypress Bioscience's Debby Jo Blank.
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.
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.|
"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."
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.
Ricki Lewis, a freelance science writer based in Scotia, N.Y., is the author of several biology textbooks. She can be reached online at email@example.com.