How One Biotech Company Narrowed the Gender Gap in Its Top Ranks

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Beginning in 2007, Genentech has been making a concerted effort to increase the representation of women in its senior leadership ranks. It has made tremendous progress. The four lessons from its success are: 1) Data drives the process; 2) everyone is accountable; 3) small actions add up; and 4) if you can’t prove it, it didn’t happen. Making significant change requires shifts in behaviors, perspectives, and processes, and that takes time.

In 2007, there were five times as many men as women in officer roles at Genentech, and female directors (the level preceding officers) were leaving at twice the rate as their male counterparts. To achieve equitable representation among men and women in leadership positions and stem the flow of departing talent, we rethought and revised our recruiting, professional development, and succession planning processes. Today, because of those efforts and a top-down commitment to change, men and women are nearly equally represented among our overall employee population and in officer and director roles.

The journey began in 2007 at a town hall meeting, where Art Levinson, who was then Genentech’s CEO, drew attention to a shortfall of women moving into our leadership ranks. He shared a table that showed that while the proportions of women and men among all Genentech employees were nearly the same, women accounted for 44% of managers/supervisors, 41% of directors, and a mere 16% of officers. He asked employees, “Do people see what’s wrong with this? Is there anyone in this room who can tell me that this is okay? Because it’s not.”

Inspired by Art’s observation and his insistence that we do better, we set a goal for the organization: Identify and remove barriers to the advancement of women to senior leadership positions, and increase the pool of women qualified for such positions by 50%.

In the years that followed, we made earnest, concerted, and consistent efforts to ensure that men and women are equally represented among Genentech’s overall employee population and in leadership roles. Along the way, we learned four lessons:

1. Data drives the process.

Genentech is a longtime supporter of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA). In 2010, the nonprofit released its landmark E.D.G.E. in Leadership Study, which outlined best practices for recruiting, advancing, and retaining women at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Building on what the HBA study had uncovered, we conducted our own research to pinpoint the obstacles blocking women’s paths to success at Genentech.

We applied the same rigor and analysis we use in scientific research to this process, collecting subjective data (through surveys and focus groups) and objective data (by looking at factors such as the differences among the number of women who applied and were invited to interview for open roles and the number of those women who received and accepted offers). We discovered that women felt they had fewer opportunities than men to take on visible and challenging assignments and that women felt less likely to receive meaningful performance feedback and fair assessments. We also learned they felt their ideas were less likely to be heard and recognized and that they had fewer opportunities to participate in the informal networks that are often key sources for information about what’s happening within an organization.

The results of our research underscored what HBA had discovered: Increasing representation required a two-pronged approach of recognizing and growing existing talent and improving our talent pipeline.

Recognizing and growing existing talent. We had plenty of talented, highly qualified women ready to advance to leadership positions at Genentech, but we weren’t doing a good job of recognizing them. To raise their visibility, we held leaders accountable for identifying women on their teams who were primed to move to the next level in their careers and then advocating for them in talent-review discussions where a broader team of leaders could have insight into their potential. The resulting opportunities — to participate in rotational assignments, lead special projects, and cover for more senior colleagues on leave — enabled us to build more thoughtful development and succession plans.

To help women expand their personal and professional support networks, we created the Genentech Women Professionals employee resource group, which hosted career-development events and informal networking activities, and we launched a sponsorship program. Sponsors are senior leaders who act as sounding boards and advocates for the women partnered with them, providing career advice and facilitating connections to other leaders and decision-makers throughout the company.

Improving our talent pipeline. To improve our talent pipeline, we refocused our external sourcing efforts on discovering, attracting, and engaging women candidates. We developed targeted marketing strategies, sponsored and attended conferences geared toward women in science, and joined professional women’s associations similar to HBA.

We also redesigned our interview process. Our talent acquisition team assembled a roster of women who volunteered to join interview panels for roles outside their functions. Including at least one woman on interview panels provided candidates with a diversity of perspectives on the Genentech employee experience; including an interviewer who didn’t work on the hiring team helped ensure we were assessing candidates as much on their alignment with Genentech’s values, core competencies, and leadership commitments as on the skills and technical expertise they could bring to the role. To remove the risk of groupthink during the debrief process, we implemented an online assessment tool that required interviewers to submit feedback to the hiring manager and recruiter before the panel met to discuss the candidate. These changes helped to reduce bias in our hiring decisions by forcing us to evaluate candidates based on their abilities rather than on titles on their resumes and interviewers’ assumptions and preferences.

2. Everyone is accountable.

When we launched our gender-diversity initiative, we established a baseline against which we could measure our progress year over year. We originally only provided an annual progress update to the board of directors, but we began sharing the data with our employees in 2019. In 2021, we published our inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Report so employees, peer companies, and candidates can also hold us accountable.

Accountability is now a critical component of our performance review process too. Leaders are expected to create succession plans for their top-performing team members. If there are no women on a leader’s list, the leader is expected to explain why — to managers, HR business partners, executive coaches, and our organizational development team. These kinds of conversations, which had never taken place before, proved instrumental in raising awareness of the issue and helping leaders close the gender gaps on their teams. At no point on our journey did we compromise Genentech’s high standards to close those gaps; rather, we challenged biases and changed behaviors.

3. Small actions add up.

The routine tasks we complete day in and day out are ultimately what make science and innovation happen; small steps can add up to something truly life changing. Weaving the message about the importance of gender diversity into the fabric of our corporate narrative was one small step that made a big difference.

Though Art Levinson was the original champion of our gender diversity efforts, leaders across the organization were equally invested in achieving our goal. At town halls, department meetings, and one-on-ones, they reinforced our commitment to equitable representation and shared updates on our progress. Repetition bred retention, and retention bred habit. Soon all Genentech leaders were actively engaged in the process.

4. If you can’t prove it, it didn’t happen.

As the exhibit below illustrates, moving the needle on gender diversity at Genentech didn’t happen overnight. Making significant change requires shifts in behaviors, perspectives, and processes, and that takes time.

Since 2007, we have more than doubled the percentage of female officers at the company, and we achieved by 2017 our goal of increasing the pool of women qualified for senior leadership positions by 50%.

Our Work Is Far from Done

While the progress we’ve made on our gender diversity initiative so far is significant, there is still much to be done to create a fully diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. Genentech’s overall employee population today is split evenly between people of color and white people, but the gap widens in leadership roles — much as it did between women and men in 2007. We’ve broadened our diversity and inclusion efforts to help ensure that our workforce reflects the increasingly diverse world around us.

An organization that encourages diversity of background, perspective, and experience is far more likely to uncover new insights and unique approaches to addressing a challenge. Diversity is especially vital at Genentech; a broad variety of perspectives and skill sets enhances our ability to discover and develop medicines that treat patients with some of the world’s most serious diseases. To that end, attracting and retaining a diverse workforce and giving everyone the opportunity to advance to senior leadership positions is not just a moral and ethical imperative, it’s also a critical business priority.

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