The issue of gender balance within UK boards has moved quickly up the business agenda following last year’s Davies Report. Lord Davies’ Women on Boards report outlined the benefits that a mixed board brings in terms of skills and different perspectives and recommended that a minimum of 25% of FTSE 100 board members should be female by 2015. Across Europe the topic is also rising in importance, with a growing feeling that quotas may soon be imposed.
The Life Sciences Perspective

How does the Life Sciences sector compare?

To find out RSA commissioned the Women on Boards: A Life Sciences’ Perspective study to find out what the situation is in the industry. Does the gender imbalance mirror UK plc and if so, what can be done to improve conditions? Is the Life Sciences industry a more favourable place for women to progress to the most senior positions and do senior managers believe more balanced boards bring a competitive edge?

These are some of the questions we researched in our study of 417 Board Directors and Senior Executives (75% of whom were director level).

Firstly, how does the UK Life Sciences compare to other sectors? Given the high proportion of women in the industry, we would expect to see above average representation. However our research suggests that Life Sciences is probably no better (or worse) than other industries. Taking the Biosciences Industry Association (BIA membership) as an example we find that 12% of its 348 registered board members are female. While at first glance this appears to be positive, on closer examination women board members are clustered in just a few firms.

A positive appetite for change

The good news is that our study found widespread agreement that balance and diversity make for better boards. Three fifths of those we surveyed stated that it is important that men and women are equally represented in the boardroom and that diversity is the key to creating the ideal senior management team. A clear majority (62%) of those surveyed recognised that women possess specific, vital skills and provide a different and valuable contribution.

So there’s widespread agreement that more balanced boards are good for companies in particular and the industry in general. What is holding diversity back? The survey highlighted three major barriers to change: ‘the different work-life choices facing women’, ‘the dominant male culture of the boardroom’ and ‘the number of qualified female executives in functions represented on the board’.

How can the imbalance be solved?

Most people didn’t see quotas as the way forward, with only 13% supporting their use by the European Union or the British government. However, there is a hidden warning in the research results. When we drilled down into the responses by gender, we found that support for quotas was greater amongst women. A third of women were ‘undecided’ on the issue, as illustrated by this anonymous contributor: ‘Quotas are not the best solution but they can be a solution if companies persistently fail to demonstrate a proportional representation of women in the senior positions.’ Clearly the threat of quotas is the wake-up call that companies need to heed before it is too late.

How can the industry achieve a better balance?

The lack of female board members isn’t down to a lack of talent. As Dr Ursula Ney, CEO of Genkyotex put it succinctly “Create an environment that is more conducive to women being involved. It’s not that there aren’t enough women in Life Sciences.”

Asked what the industry could do to achieve a better balance in the boardroom, almost half highlighted factors such as more flexible working, proactive mentoring, greater transparency in recruiting and commitment and endorsement by business leadership as vital.

Three key recommendations

Our panel of senior executives identified three key areas where the Life Sciences industry could be doing better:

  1. Firstly, promote a more empathic business culture and working environment.
  2. Undertake appropriate and sustained learning and development.
  3. Coach female candidates to succeed in the boardroom.

Be proactive about women

Solving the gender imbalance involves the whole industry. Executive Search firms such as RSA must work harder to identify, nurture and promote senior female executive talent. Our respondents identified three key areas where Executive Search could provide greater support:

  1. Be pro-active about including women in the process. Always look for female candidates, and ensure that they are brought into the process. Consider having quotas for the inclusion of women candidates in short lists for interviewing.
  2. Scout harder for female talent. Men find it difficult to opt out, whereas women find it difficult to opt in. Headhunt suitable women because they are less likely to put themselves forward.
  3. Promote the benefits of a mixed board. Encourage a diverse senior management environment by setting an example and putting forward the right mix of candidates.

What this study told us is that it is vital to the overall success of Life Sciences companies that they are led by strong and well-qualified boards, made up of high calibre members with a mix of skills, perspectives and backgrounds. The positive news is that the entire industry recognises that increased female representation is a key element in remaining competitive. Women have the skills – now the industry needs to work to ensure that talented individuals have the opportunities they deserve within Life Sciences.