27 November 2019
By Jeremy Wurm, Managing Director, Brooker Consulting
When it comes to tackling the issue of diversity (in all its forms), the life sciences sector has a way to go. Nevertheless, progress has been made in rectifying the widely recognised gender imbalance at the board table. Many listed entities are now able to state that close to 30% of their directors are female, which, while still sub-optimal, is an improvement on the ratios of the past.
In executive ranks, it appears that the pharma industry is seeing a higher proportion of women occupying key managerial positions, and biotech companies continue to make progress in this area, albeit slowly. Notably, the BioMelbourne Network remains under female leadership at CEO level, as do AusBiotech, Medicines Australia and ARCS, among others.
Moreover, the boards of these organisations also benefit from significant stewardship by female governance professionals. When it comes to skills, biotechs demonstrate judicions selection on the basis of complementary credentials, in contrast to the cronyism and “old boys’ clubs”, which were an unfortunate feature of some previous boards.
However, the situation regarding ethnic diversity is far less satisfactory. Given that Australia sits in a similar time zone as a significant chunk of the global healthcare business, many boards do not reflect the fact that we compete in the Asia Pacific marketplace.
The ethnic diversity of students currently studying STEM subjects in this country is in sharp contrast to the fact that very many boards have little capacity to relate to the languages, customs and business protocols of the region as a whole.
When it comes to the question of ageism, the situation is even further out of kilter. The fact that the proportion of older Australians as a percentage of the population continues to grow is well recognised. However, this should not in itself provide justification for favouring directors who are at or beyond the age of retirement.
There will always be a need for seasoned governance professionals who display the wisdom and judgement which only comes through decades of success as a senior executive. Since we now live in a world where social media and artificial intelligence continue to shape the way business is done, more attention should be paid to the appointment of directors who are “digital natives”.
In the same way that boards with higher proportions of women have been shown to exhibit enhanced decision-making, it is vital that upwardly mobile executives acquire governance experience. This is in the best interests of the boards they will challenge, as well as being beneficial for their own career development.