By Matthew Pillar, Editor, BioProcess Online
Why it does, and how one startup is winning the biotech talent wars with a diversity-centric strategy.
Recursion Pharmaceuticals sits squarely at the intersection of Silicon Valley and Big Pharma. The company is putting high-capacity cloud computing power behind its drug discovery initiatives, performing “large-scale analytics and artificial intelligence model training on the characteristics of hundreds of cellular phenotypes across biology to develop computational ‘fingerprints,’ or Phenoprints™, of a wide variety of biological perturbations.”
Let’s translate that for you old-schoolers making your magic happen in the wet lab. Recursion’s approach to drug discovery sees the company applying AI to Big Data and developing algorithms to identify potential applications for molecules well before any scientist is tasked with donning a lab coat. It’s the stuff everyone’s talking about, but few are doing. The company is using software to analyze terabytes of data each week. It’s analyzing and adding images of more than 10 million cells per week to a database of biological images that exceeds 2.5 petabytes. That’s all happening in the cloud and manifesting on the screens of digital devices at the company’s Salt Lake City headquarters.
This formative combination of science and information technology that’s the DNA of Recursion makes it a traditionally unlikely place to find some 60 women toiling away to solve complex tech and science problems for the ultimate betterment of healthcare. That’s close to 40 percent of the company’s workforce. For contrast, in 2016, women constituted only 26 percent of workers in data science professions. Recursion’s ability to attract and retain women in its director and executive roles is particularly impressive. Its Sr. Corporate Counsel, VP of Core Operations, Director of Product Management, VP of Project Management and Chief of Staff, Sr. VP of Biology, Sr. Director of Clinical Operations, Sr. Talent Recruiter, and new Chief People Officer are all women. Women account for more than a third of the staff-level engineers and scientists that comprise the company’s bench.
The company’s Chief Operating Officer is also a woman. Her name is Tina Larson, and I recently spoke with her at length about gender bias in biotech and the campaign to recruit more women to STEM careers. Joining the conversation were Lina Nilsson, senior director of data science product at Recursion, and Amanda Guisbond, director of corporate communications, both of whom shared their personal experiences and provided some insight into Recursion’s effort to drive diversity and inclusion among its ranks.
What’s Holding Gender Diversity Back In STEM Careers?
While no one denies the statistics that illustrate the disproportionate ratio of men to women in any number of STEM careers, vehement arguments are often waged about whether or not it really matters. Larson, Nilsson, Guisbond, and a host of other director- and executive-level staffers at Recursion believe it does matter, and they believe some underlying contributing factors can be addressed to correct the course; unconscious bias, stereotypes, and a leaky recruiting pipeline. Let’s look at those factors in some detail.
I sort of surprised myself by posing an unplanned question to the trio about unconscious bias. As I admitted to the group during our call, this white, male, GenX product of a rural, ignorantly chauvinistic upbringing isn’t the most comfortable person in the room during a conversation on gender disparity with three highly-educated, progressive women who have experienced, studied, and championed against it for years.
Fortunately, they were sympathetic. Guisbond and Larson reminded me that uncomfortable conversation is typically the most enlightening kind. “One of the most painful moments in my career was realizing my sexism,” Larson admits. She validated what I feared was an excuse — that upbringing, demography, and generational differences influence our proclivity to demonstrate bias. “I grew up in the seventies and eighties, and learning about unconscious bias revealed how that impacted the way that I was treating other women in the workplace.”
Nilsson suggested that indeed, she surprised herself when she — an award-winning millennial Ph.D. and active advocate for professional women — tested positive for unconscious gender bias. For more on that test, see the sidebar Middle-Aged, Rural White Guy Takes A Gender Bias Test below.
Unconscious bias can be particularly problematic in STEM-centric industries dominated by male leaders who make or influence hiring decisions. It influences the composition of workforces at every level of the organization, potentially limiting the talent you attract. As a case in point, Larson contemplated the offer at Recursion for several months after the company began courting her for its COO position. “At the time, there were no women executives here and there were no females on the board,” she explains. “That was a really big problem for me. I had to spend a lot of time talking to Chris [Gibson, cofounder and CEO] before I was convinced that he had an absolute commitment to building an inclusive environment, and that my hiring would be a key indicator of the future of our company.”
To Gibson’s credit, he convinced Larson and made good on his word. Recursion is the better for it. Larson is a walking case study on the fallibility of the “men are more scientific and analytical” bias, unconscious or otherwise. She started her career as associate engineer, automation engineering at Genentech and spent nearly 18 years working her way up to senior director, technical development operations & engineering there before moving on to global head, technical development, business operations at Genentech parent company Roche.
Tina Larson, COO, Recursion Pharmaceuticals
After nearly 20 years spent engineering solutions to a biotech giant’s biggest challenges, she was without question the best person for the job she almost didn’t take.
But Larson points out that the manifestation of unconscious bias in our social constructs work to dissuade girls from tech and science from the outset. She shares a personal example of it, starring her daughter, who chose to participate in an after-school robotics program in the second grade. “At the end of the semester, I asked her which after-school class she enjoyed the most. Robotics was her favorite,” relays Larson. When it came time to pick classes for the following semester, that interest in robotics was gone. She was disenfranchised at the thought of being the only girl in the class. This prompted Larson to look deeper into the school’s robotics curriculum. “It was all based on Star Wars, which automatically skewed its appeal toward boys.” A subconscious association, for sure, but Larson points out that it isn't fun for a second-grader to be the only girl in the group, and it’s particularly difficult to deal with feeling excluded or different at such a young age. “We’re unintentionally turning girls off to these fields so often and early on, by the time we can have career conversations with them it's too late.”
That’s a problem, because research suggests the notion that big STEM challenges are best addressed by men is increasingly a false association. It’s one that’s based on the next, closely related hurdle facing gender-disparity warriors: stereotypes.
We’ve all heard the argument that some jobs are naturally and/or inherently geared toward members of one sex or the other. By way of example, in a scathing critique of tech journalist Emily Chang’s expose of the Silicon Valley “bro culture” Brotopia, an aspiring Ph.D. candidate named Sean Welsh crystalized the argument. “It so happens relatively few women like coding and relatively few men like nursing. It is not that women can’t code and men can’t nurse. It is just that they choose to do other things,” he wrote.
I wrote an op-ed piece on sexism in the information technology sector for a business IT site a while back, and the ensuing, impassioned commentary leaned heavily on the argument that occupational preferences are primarily a product of gender.
Nilsson won’t accept that as a societal norm. “I push against the blanket idea that women are not performing as well as men in these areas. That's not true. If you look across geographies, there are countries where women perform better than men in STEM in academia.” That’s true, particularly in middle eastern countries. What’s more, on a global scale, the variance between girls and boys on standardized math and science testing is within the margin of error.
Even if men were scientifically, unequivocally validated as intrinsically and inherently better at math and science than women, Nilsson refuses the notion that rote analytical skill is the sole requirement of success in a biotech career. “I push back on the idea that these complex problems are only solved with pure math in isolation. They're not. Complex challenges require complex solutions and multifaceted thinking. I don’t accept the basic premise that just a strong math mind is the solution.”
Lina Nilsson, senior director of data science product, Recursion Pharmaceuticals
Stats presented in the National Science Board’s Science & Engineering Indicators 2018 report also suggest the gender-specific occupational preferences argument is getting lame. Let’s look at a few of them:
All this evidence suggests that not only are they outperforming men in terms of their capability, but more women are, in fact, choosing to do this STEM thing. Once they’ve made that choice, however, there are some unique challenges to keeping them there.
Unfortunately, women in STEM also contribute disproportionately to the attrition of the industry’s talent. Per the aforementioned National Science Board Study:
These metrics support the analogy that Nilsson makes when she illustrates this attrition as a leaky pipeline. “There's not a single step where women disappear,” she says. “At every step of career progression, you lose a few percent of females.” That challenges Recursion and other life sciences employers to answer a host of questions. What is the reason that women aren't applying? What is the reason that they don't stay beyond the first year? What is the reason that they don't get promoted? “At each of these critical junctions, we have to analyze what we can do that will have the greatest impact on preventing the leaky pipeline that affects the industry,” says Nilsson.
Interestingly, there’s evidence that women are more invested in their careers despite their attrition. Per the National Science Board’s report, women participated in work-related training at a higher rate than men (55 versus 49 percent).
While maternity is often referenced as an “obvious” reason for women to at least temporarily step away from their careers, research points to other contributing factors; workload, stress, and money being chief among them.
What’s Recursion Doing To Encourage Diversity And Inclusivity?
At Recursion, pursuit of gender diversity is a two-pronged spear. The immediate objective is to attract and retain the brightest female talent available to the company right now. The longer-term effort is to invest in programs that are encouraging future generations of women in STEM. “We all care a lot about women in STEM in general, but ultimately, our day job is building a company, and we're building a company that requires incredible multidisciplinary focus across scientific and technical disciplines,” says Larson “Building diversity of thought into our multidisciplinary teams is a strategic means of attaining that,” she says. “We’re making sure that we're tapping in to all the best people and the most diverse thinking possible to achieve our mission.”
Gibson, who made that earlier-mentioned promise to Larson upon her hiring, has tipped the spear of the effort. He’s a driving force behind the aforementioned laundry list of female talent the company has attracted and retained since Larson joined the company. The company’s female headcount approaches 40 percent today. It hasn’t been easy, as Guisbond acknowledges. “Utah is a competitive state, and we’re in a competitive time,” she says. “Unemployment is at an all-time low, and we’re competing with companies and other major high tech and high science hubs like the Bay area and Boston, where people are constantly being poached from their seats.” But, she also acknowledges the importance of engaging in the battle “The winning companies, and the war of emerging biotechnologies, will be fought on the backs of great people,” she says. “It'll be about talent more than anything.”
“The winning companies, and the war of emerging biotechnologies, will be fought on the backs of great people. It'll be about talent more than anything.”
Amanda Guisbond, director of corporate communications, Recursion Pharmaceuticals
To attract that talent, Recursion offers a benefits package that’s hard to beat and some of the cool office perks you’d expect of a mountain-state biotech startup, like a rock wall in the lobby and frequent visits from a company-underwritten gourmet lunch chef. But those perks don’t fuel the company’s daily-and-common culture, which is the real key to talent retention. It’s the conscious management decisions the company makes — like setting concrete goals to increase the diversity of its recruits and ensuring gender parity in approval to travel to industry conferences and events. The company supported the WomenHack conference’s first foray into Sale Lake City in 2018, and earlier this year it played host to a Women in Data Science conference. It was also included on the Women Tech Council’s 2019 Shatter List, which recognizes technology companies that are “creating and enacting practices and cultures that remove the glass ceiling.” The List scores companies on four factors to building inclusive cultures that help women succeed in tech careers.
While these formal and awarded efforts are the hardest evidence of the company’s pro-diversity culture, Gibson’s championing of the movement have proven a rallying point for Recursion. When a cadre of Recursion employees were among the many offended by sexist commentary made by a moderator at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit early this year, Gibson—whose company sponsored the event—was quick to react to the moderator’s since-deleted and woefully inadequate apology on social media. “Your comments offended our entire @RecursionPharma team as sponsors at @siliconslopes. Men and women. It brought down the awesome community we are building here. It made it harder for us to recruit. It wasn't a joke or an attempt at humor. Your non-apology doesn't help,” he wrote. That’s the kind of 140-character broadside that stirs a tribe’s soul and builds a fervent following in an immeasurable way.
Longer-term, the company seeks to influence the issue at its root by investing in STEM education programs for students and professionals. “For example, we support high school STEM science fair events, and we host a quarterly Women in Science and Technology event,” says Larson. Those events bring the surrounding community into Recursion’s offices for an opportunity to hear from and network with female tech and science leaders. This sort of activity isn’t restricted to corporate sponsorship—it’s encouraged at the personal level, too. Larson, for instance, sits on the advisory board for the College of Engineering at Colorado State University, where she champions policies that encourage historically underrepresented people to join the school’s engineering program.
Earlier this year, Recursion and the University of Utah’s Center for Technology & Venture Commercialization signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the launch, programming, and management of an incubator for life science and technology startups. One of the incubator’s primary goals, says Larson, is to promote opportunities for women and individuals who have been historically underrepresented in science and technology.
Positive Impact Of Gender Diversity
The sum of the intellectual contributions made by the women of Recursion Pharmaceuticals would be impossible to measure. No matter. A cursory look at the credentials of its female employees is all it takes to ensure the company’s conscious effort to increase diversity there is having an impact. It’s winning the female talent war, and that’s having a snowball effect on its ability to recruit more top female talent. Larson, Nilsson, and Guisbond all tell me that the number and caliber of women on any company’s “meet the team” page is an important indicator of their proclivity to engage as a candidate, or even business partner. “I think other highly sought after, incredible, and diverse candidates out there are going to look at prospective companies through a similar lens,” says Larson. “And I think if you can successfully demonstrate a commitment to women and the contributions they’re making to the company, as I believe Recursion is doing, then you open up access to an incredible pool of talent that will help your company grow.”
The fact that highly-educated millennial scientist Lina Nilsson didn’t ace a subconscious gender bias test intrigued me, so I tested myself using online tools from Project Implicit. I was quite relieved at the results, especially given my aforementioned upbringing. Project Implicit is a nonprofit organization — the product of a collaboration of researchers from University of Washington, University of Virginia, and Harvard — that aims to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the internet.
I took the Gender-Career IAT (implicit-association test), which can reveal relative links between “family” and “females” and between “career” and “males.” That test produced no automatic association of women with family and men with career. This surprised me, given that I was raised by a stay-at-home mom and that my wife of 16 years has been the same. In fact, she informed me on the day I proposed that her “yes” came with a caveat — she would quit her job two weeks before our wedding. Her aim was to not return. She’s held true to her word.
The Gender-Science IAT was another story. This test often reveals a relative link between liberal arts and females and between science and males. My test results on this one suggest a moderate automatic association for male with science and female with liberal arts.
That can be a problem in STEM-centric industries dominated by male leaders who make or influence hiring decisions. Those leaders might have the best conscious intentions, yet their subconscious actions and tolerances could be contributing, even in small ways, to an environment that’s unwelcoming or worse for female talent that would be an asset to their teams.