Women’s leadership in the life sciences industry: what is causing the gender gap and how can we close it

Picture this. You and your VC team are preparing to be pitched to by a group of entrepreneurs who are looking for investment. As the only woman involved in the pitch, it falls to you to prepare the room and refreshments. Meanwhile, conversations between the group continue without your involvement while you serve tea and coffee. You then take your seat at the investors' table and introduce yourself. The dynamic completely changes and the pitch team has a surprised and embarrassed look on their faces when they realise who you are.

This personal experience is an example of unconscious bias faced by many women in the life sciences industry and wider society as a whole.

When putting healthcare under the microscope, it’s clear that although women are well represented within the healthcare sector as a whole, the problem lies at the leadership level. Women make up 65% of the workforce, 30% of the C-suite, yet just 13% of CEOs.[i]

This prompts the question: what is causing this gender gap and how can we close it?

Gender inequality begins early, from young girls being given pink protective masks, to women in some companies not being chosen for positions because they are at ‘risk’ of becoming pregnant and thus inconveniencing an organisation by the inability to offer continuous and uninterrupted employment. Many cultural factors at play shape certain societal roles for men and women and these impact perceptions of leadership. All too often men are seen as ‘born leaders’ and female leaders are treated as an anomaly. Challenging these perceptions has to begin at home.

A lack of female leadership role models also contributes to the gender gap. Passionate leaders are needed to encourage women to boldly pursue leadership positions and challenge the misconception that women need to behave like men to be successful. At Johnson & Johnson Innovation, we have strong female representation across our global and local leadership teams. Through these role models, and through championing women at the more junior levels, we are working towards a critical mass of women in management positions where they can develop and thrive.

Mentorship is also crucial to supporting women in their professional development. At Johnson & Johnson Innovation we set up screenings of ‘She Started It’, a documentary film featuring five inspiring female founders to connect younger women with role models and mentors in the health start-up community. As part of the company-wide Women’s Leadership and Inclusion initiative, we launched a programme called Mentoring Connections that pairs mentees and mentors within the industry.

There is still a perception in society that women should be responsible for the bulk of childcare responsibilities, which in reality, they mostly are. Some women feel inherent guilt about wanting to have children as well as a successful career. Although driven by government policy, organisations can promote acceptance of flexible working conditions, shared parental leave, and comprehensive childcare policies to challenge this. Johnson & Johnson is in the top ten companies for working mothers and the Re-Ignite programme supports women who wish to return to work after having paused their STEM careers for more than two years.

During 2019, female founders received just 2.7% of all venture capital investment and it was reported that investors were less willing to take a risk on female-led businesses.[ii] This is a shocking observation as it’s counter to the ethos of a venture investor, which is to take risk! The explanations for why female-led businesses are considered to be more risky are probably complex and multiple. One obvious explanation might be that investment networks are male-dominated. Women have to work doubly hard to develop and be part of these networks. With small steps these women can then promote investment in female-led businesses. In Johnson & Johnson Innovation, we are accelerating this trend and 30% of JLABS companies of female led.

I believe that the way we, and that is both women and men, can improve opportunities for women is by continuing this journey together. This can be achieved by better understanding each other’s point of view, and committing to the removal of gender stereotypes. We can do this through the creation of environments that support and champion women in leadership roles with a view to enabling the women of tomorrow to thrive, flourish and achieve greatness.

Fiona MacLaughlin, Senior Director, Johnson & Johnson Innovation JJDC Inc. participated in the Female Founders Panel at LSX World Congress 2021.


[i] Oliver Wyman 2019. Women as the Heartbeat of Healthcare. Available at: Accessed: February 2021

[ii] Fortune. Female founders got more funding than ever in 2019. But still less than WeWork took in. Available at: Accessed: February 2021