Achieving boardroom gender balance is vital to building successful life sciences companies – but the industry must do more to make this a reality, according to a major new report published last week by RSA.

The Women on Boards: A Life Sciences’ Perspective survey found that 84% of leaders in the sector believe that balance and diversity is key to creating the ideal boardroom and three out of five executives agree that men and women should be equally represented. Over 60% see women as bringing unique skills to the boardroom, notably intuition (76%) and empathy (74%).

Around 12% of life sciences board members are currently female, and business leaders agree that the industry needs to work together to address this imbalance. Almost half of survey respondents highlighted more flexible working, proactive mentoring, greater transparency in recruiting and leadership endorsement as critical areas for improvement.
Following the Davies report of 2011, the issue of the gender balance within the boards of UK companies has firmly moved towards the top of the corporate agenda, with recommendations that all FTSE 100 companies should aim for a minimum of 25% female representation in the boardroom by 2015. Adding to this urgency the European Union is debating whether to impose quotas on board membership, ensuring that the issue of diversity remains at the forefront of corporate thinking.

Commenting on the survey results, Nick Stephens, CEO of RSA said:
“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 background. The 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.”

The Women on Boards: A Life Sciences’ Perspective report highlighted five key trends:

* Balance and diversity make for better boards – three out of five executives believe men and women should be equally represented and that diversity is the key to creating the ideal boardroom
* Women make a unique contribution – 60% of executives believe women bring different and much needed skills to the boardroom. Three quarters of respondents rated them higher than men for intuition and empathy
* Culture and life choices determine boardroom balance – the three largest barriers identified to greater female representation were the different work/life choices facing women, the dominant male culture of the boardroom and a lack of direct board representation for business functions that typically have a high proportion of qualified female executives
* Quotas are not the answer – most would not support the introduction of quotas by the European Union or UK government. However a significant percentage are undecided on the subject – meaning that if substantial progress isn’t made they may switch to supporting quotas
* Better management and staff development is key – almost half highlighted more flexible working, proactive mentoring, greater transparency in recruiting and leadership endorsement as areas where the life sciences industry could improve and help redress the board gender balance.

From its experience RSA believes the life sciences industry has an abundance of talented senior female executives and is well placed to achieve a better balance in the boardroom. Going forward, the report sets out three key areas for the industry to address:

* Quotas are not the solution but they are the wake-up call – although the majority in the life sciences industry don’t want to see quotas introduced, they recognise that a balanced board is a better one. Cultural change and more support for women is necessary if the threat of imposed quotas is to be tackled
* The industry needs to listen more and deliver on coaching and leadership commitments – senior management needs to listen to what women say rather than simply providing a solution from a male perspective
* Executive Search must work harder to find and promote female executive talent – those in Executive Search need to work harder to find, nurture and promote senior female executive talent.

“The whole industry needs to act together to address the current gender imbalance,” said Dr. Kay Wardle, Managing Director, RSA Executive Search, UK. “By working together we believe that we can ultimately achieve a better balance on boards, benefiting the entire Life Sciences industry by enabling it to access a wider range of skills, delivering competitive advantage for everyone.”

The survey was completed by 417 senior executives in the UK Life Sciences industry, three quarters of whom were director level. There was a relatively even split between male (57%) and female (43%) respondents, with the majority aged between 41-60. Research took place in the second quarter of 2012.