Canada's Condominium Magazine

Women grads outnumber men in science programs, but gender gap persists in biotech industry

This is National Biotechnology Week in Canada. Toronto is a major centre of biotech, with more than 150 companies established here, including big names like GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Amgen. The city of Toronto says that more than 11,000 principal researchers and technicians work at the University of Toronto and nearly fifty other research institutes and teaching hospitals.

The bio-economy includes businesses that research, invent, develop and produce products that are based on living resources, with many different disciplines involved, including biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, immunology, microbiology, pharmacology and agriculture. The possibilities for employment are literally limitless. In fact, more than half of Canada’s biotech companies report skills shortages, according to the HR company BioTalent Canada.

So it is disappointing to learn that that old problem of gender bias is still rife in the biotech industry. Even though 60 per cent of graduates with science degrees in Canada are women, the number of women working in biotech has fallen by 11.5 per cent since 2008. Fewer than 20 per cent of senior and executive positions in biotech are held by women. A survey by BioTalent concludes that many women face a “difficult environment” in the industry, an environment that includes a gender pay gap and other types of discrimination.

Women, the report says, want to work in biotech for the same basic reasons that men do: an interest in medicine, science, or business. But women have a harder time finding a job, and gender bias is part of the problem. It isn’t always overt or blatant, but shows itself in subtle ways. Males are more often perceived by hirers as being willing to work late, for example, even when these same hirers affirm that men and women are equally qualified for the job. That perceived willingness to work late could tip the balance in favour of the man.

Being a woman in the bio-economy requires tenacity, self-advocacy and a strong work ethic. It means having to constantly demonstrate one’s skills on the job and consciously balance the demands of work and home.

Stereotypes about men being better for leadership roles and women better in supporting roles persist as well. Further complicating the picture is the fact that many women believe that their gender influences their employers’ decisions in hiring and promoting them. Women who believe this were found to be less satisfied with their jobs.

Succeeding in the industry requires that women show tenacity, self-advocacy, a strong work ethic, the need to constantly demonstrate job skills, and the ability to balance the demands of work and home life. In fact, work/life balance is one of the main reasons women do not seek advancement in their careers, even when they feel they are qualified.

A lack of mentorship among women is also given as a problem that needs addressing. A female CEO of a biotech company is quoted anonymously in the report, saying that while men make introductions, mentor and support each other, women don’t tend to do that.

The BioTalent report recommends that employers should give greater consideration to work/life balance issues, and should receive greater education and training in how to combat both conscious and unconscious gender bias in their workplaces.

BioTalent will present its findings at events throughout National Biotechnology Week, October 30–November 6.

Key findings

  • Women want to work in the bio-economy, and when they do, they are regarded as vital contributors to companies’ technological and business success.
  • Gender bias has a real and discernible negative effect on women in the bio-economy workforce.
  • Concrete steps can be taken by the sector to make it even more welcoming and supportive of women’s success.

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