As Asco and BIO, two of the industry’s biggest events, draw to a close, a few people might be conscious of the relative absence of a once-vital ingredient in the usual round of evening socials: models.
The practice of padding out social functions with women paid to attend to balance largely male guest lists seems to have been brought to a halt after this year’s JP Morgan conference when LifeSci Advisors, the investor relations consultancy group, faced a barrage of criticism for hiring models for its annual party during the event.
The intense media scrutiny, mainly driven by female industry executives and journalists, sparked heated debates, an open letter calling out the practice, and what some argued was much-needed soul-searching among the companies who had become infamous for flying in hostesses.
LifeSci has since made a 180 degree pivot and as well as trying to distance itself from its previous behaviour has launched a number of initiatives to encourage gender diversity in the industry.
Speaking to EP Vantage Mike Rice, a founding partner of LifeSci Advisors, is frank about his company’s past conduct. “Before we had our party at JP Morgan I was not thinking about these issues. We were thrown into this [gender diversity] and have since become real converts.”
He is also clear about what the reaction from both men and women in the industry has taught him and his fellow executives. “We made a mistake. What we did was inappropriate and offensive to male and female colleagues. We acknowledged that and at the end of the day that really put me in a position to understand and do some work about these issues.”
Mr Rice, who speaks with the zeal of the newly converted, is willing to express surprise at the low number of women on the boards of biotech companies. This passion might come as a surprise to the women working in the industry, many of whom were already aware of board-level inequality.
Five months after the infamous JP Morgan party, which some believe was a rather tamer affair than its 2015 party during Asco, when it hired go-go dancers to entertain guests, Mr Rice has not only chaired a panel at this year's BIO speaking on gender diversity, but come up with a raft of measures to foster inclusion in the industry.
As part of its Damascene conversion LifeSci has sensibly started by cleaning its own house and has doubled the number of women working within the firm. It now boasts two female managing directors following the recruitment of Moran Meir-Beres.
Other initiatives include partnering with Women in Bio and supporting a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programme for girls through the New York-based nonprofit initiative Girls Inc.
It has also set up a 13-strong advisory board made up of both men and women to counsel it on diversity and hold it accountable to the long list of goals it has set itself.
Perhaps one of the most interesting and important projects the group is working on is an initiative to help its clients diversify their boards of directors, with the goal of adding 15 qualified women to the boards of its clients and other healthcare companies by the end of 2017.
While this seems an admirable goal LifeSci currently works with about 80 companies, so why not aim higher?
“We do hope to double or triple this, but one of the things I have recognised very quickly is that these issues move slowly. One of my frustrations in dealing with this is that lots of people have tried and very few have succeeded in making headway, and what I have come to understand is that it takes time,” Mr Rice says.
Adding to the problem of slow change for more female inclusion on boards is the age-old chicken-and-egg problem of boards wanting members with board experience, without being willing to give potential candidates their first shot. This is why the same names often come up again and again with board appointments.
There are other factors that can cause the status quo to remain, particularly among early-stage companies, which theoretically should be more open to change. Mr Rice explains that when speaking to these groups many point to the cost of headhunters, the time involved in looking beyond their usual gene pool for talent, and the attitude “we think our board is okay right now and we have bigger priorities to deal with”.
To combat this perennial problem LifeSci's work with Women In Bio and other organisations will identify promising potential board members and give them the skill sets that could qualify them for boards.
There is satisfaction in creating more equitable companies. But the most compelling arguments for gender diversity – arguments that could sting companies into action – might be financial ones.
Mr Rice points to the fiscal benefits of an inclusive workforce. “Studies have shown with diverse boards the return on equity is 53% higher than non-diverse boards.” He also claims that companies with one woman on the board have shares which typically outperform the market by 25%.
With this in mind perhaps LifeSci’s work might be better focused on the venture capital world, lobbying companies who control the supply of finance to smaller groups, and where returns should drive investment decisions.
It is something Mr Rice is considering. “You would think most of these venture firms would understand the dollar and cents issue. I’m not sure why this does not resonate further. So one of the audiences we need to get out and educate is, no question, VCs.”
That might be a difficult conversation given that industry is itself struggling with diversity issues. While externally a lot of LifeSci’s actions may seem like a large PR stunt for a company that was figuratively caught with its pants down over gender diversity, Mr Rice is adamant that the group is in this for the long haul.
“We are not going to do this for three or six months and go away, we are going to need to do this for long time, because that’s the only way we will make true progress.”
Many in the industry be watching LifeSci closely to see if it keeps it promises. They will also watching to see if real change does come out of this.