The gender disparity in the life sciences sector begins long before qualified candidates reach the executive officer or board member level. Consider the educational pathways of girls and young women. A study in the U.S. found that by middle school, boys were more than twice as likely as girls to plan to work in engineering or science-based jobs.

The statistics don’t improve much through college and university. A recent report from Catalyst, a global non-profit that focuses on building “workplaces that work for women,” reveals that women in Canada are less likely to enter and more likely to leave professions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). For instance, in 2017-18, only 37.8% of post-secondary students enrolled in STEM subjects were women. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that although more than 50% of students enrolled in science and science technology post-secondary programs over the past 10 years have been women, our research shows that in life sciences the numbers of women in boardrooms and executive officer positions hover closer to the 15% mark.

Is there a brighter future ahead?

The current situation doesn’t paint a very hopeful picture. However, there are some signs that the needle is starting to shift. In a recent interview, Karimah Es Sabar, a Canadian life sciences leader and CEO and Partner at Quark Venture LP, suggests there’s reason for cautious optimism – provided steps are taken in the right direction.

“I do see women in life science and in STEM more than ever before, so I am very happy to see continuous progress from the earlier days when I had first joined the industry,” she says. “Nonetheless, there is always room for improvement. Taking into account that 52% of the world’s population are women, I do not see this ratio represented in many workplace scenarios.

“I strongly believe that the companies at the public and private level should always evaluate if they are doing enough to ensure that their policies are those of active inclusion. I am also concerned about the visible lack of women in the boardrooms and in policy making. This must be championed by the leadership and nurtured all through the organization.”

Increasingly, corporations and organizations are recognizing the disparities in the industry and are launching initiatives to improve the level of representation of both women and people of colour in senior roles in life sciences companies, including:

  • Equity and Diversity Collaborative: The City of Mississauga’s Economic Development Office and the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association have established the Equity & Diversity Collaborative, a consortium of healthcare and life sciences companies dedicated to advancing gender equity and diversity in the workplace. In 2021, the group is focusing on improving recruitment, hiring and promotion practices, as well as other goals identified in the first Solutions Summit held in April 2021.
  • Life Sciences Ontario workshops: Together with Shift Health, Life Sciences Ontario is presenting “Building an inclusive life sciences future,” a series of workshops aimed at developing a vision and action plan for inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) within Ontario’s life sciences ecosystem.
  • Innovative Medicines Canada: As the national association representing Canada’s innovative pharmaceutical industry, Innovative Medicines Canada and its 47 member companies have formalized diversity, equity and inclusion principles into a framework that covers four key areas: talent, health equity, education and training, and partnerships.

It should be noted that these initiatives are still in their infancy. It remains to be seen whether they are actually successful in effecting change in the industry.

Latest diversity data

Osler’s 2021 Diversity Disclosure Report lists the percentage of women directors at TSX-listed life sciences companies, as of mid-year 2021, at 17% (up from 16% in 2020). This is just slightly higher than the results from the energy services industry which sits at the very bottom of the list at 16%. The percentage representation of women at the board level in life sciences is significantly lower than the 22% average for TSX-listed companies as a whole (based on the 614 companies that disclosed), and is well below the 33% average for S&P/TSX 60 company boards. Per board, life sciences companies had just 1.20 women per board as of mid-year 2021, down from 1.25 in 2020.

Breakdown of number and percentages of women directors in 2021

The percentage of women executive officers in the life sciences sector, as of mid-year 2021, was 15%, no change from 2020. This level of representation is lower than both the TSX-listed average of 18% (based on 614 companies that disclosed) and the 22% average for S&P/TSX 60 companies. The number of women executive officers, on a per board basis, was 0.89 at mid-year 2021.

Breakdown of number and percentages of women executive officers in 2021

Trends since 2015

Osler’s survey results from 2015 through to 2021 indicate that, despite an increase over the years – from 9% in 2015 to 15% in 2020/2021 – women continue to be underrepresented on life sciences company boards.

Progress has been even slower in the C-suite. Though there have been some gains and losses over the years, our results indicate that the percentage of women holding executive officer positions at life sciences companies is consistently below 20%, and has in fact dropped from 19% in 2015 to just 15% in 2020/2021.