From The Editor | March 13, 2023

Women Rising In Biotech


By Louis Garguilo, Chief Editor, Outsourced Pharma


The challenge, it seems, has narrowed to executive leadership roles. That’s progress. However, here are some typical headlines from various media sources:

“Why can't the drug industry solve its gender diversity problem?”
“Men fill more than 9 in 10 biopharma CEO positions, an inequity that costs women more than $500 million in pay each year”

Occasionally, though, there can be a more optimism outlook:

“Diversity in the pharmaceutical sector – Is the future female?”

Yet even the more positive spin directly above comes with the “CEO caveat”:

“Recent studies have shown that women in the pharma industry represent 61% of the workforce, which is considerably higher than other industries. However, when looking at leadership in this space, the percentage of female leaders is significantly lower. Less than 10% of CEOs in the Biopharma industry are women, and women make up only 25% of leadership teams in the pharmaceutical space [although this is much improved from previous years].”

Specific to our focus on drug development and manufacturing outsourcing, I surveyed the 33 members of the Outsourced Pharma Editorial Board to come up with a list of woman executives (founders, CEOs, etc.) at CDMOs.

I received some interesting replies to my question whether they know woman leaders at service providers, including this one:

“Fantastic question! And my answer is - I don’t know any female CEO running a CDMO.  And I’ve dealt / interacted with ~40 CMOs/CDMOs in my 19 years in the outsourcing landscape. The highest ranking female I’ve worked with was the VP of Business Development at Catalent, Lisa Krallis.”
-- Firelli Alonso, Senior Director, External Supply, Pfizer

(Note: Catalent also has female leaders on its executive leadership team.)

Here's our impromptu list:

Audrey Greenberg / Center for Breakthrough Medicines
Dolores Baksh / TAAV;
Andrea Wagner / Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing
Deborah Wild / Cellipoint Bioservices
Sylvia Wojczewski and Hüseyin Aygün / BioSpring
(former CEO) Christine Guenther / apceth Biopharma GmbH (now Minaris Regenerative Medicine GmbH)
Tia Lyles-Williams / LucasPye Bio
(CBO) Elizabeth Hickman / AustinPx

This exercise was catalyzed as I was interviewing Alexandra Ortiz-Rosa, Director, Cell & Gene Therapy Unit, at OcyonBio, a start-up partnership development and manufacturing organization (PDMO) in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. (see parts one and two)

During the discussion, I asked her if she’d talk to me about her experience as a woman in our outsourcing industry. She was willing.

Pharma From The Start

To start, here’s Ortiz-Rosa in her own words (and lightly edited):

“I knew early on I wanted to jump into the pharmaceutical industry, because of the impact we can have on patients. I have a Master’s in Molecular Biotech, I am also completing my Doctorate in Virology as I continue to expand my knowledge and expertise.

I entered the CGT space with a small biotech [CytoImmune Therapeutics] that produced CAR NK [natural killer] cells, as a vector development scientist. As you can imagine, viral-vector based modifications is where my attention generally gravitates towards.

I helped expedite the process development efforts for their immunotherapy program. We were able to transfer the technology from their discovery labs in Monroe, California, into a manufacturing facility in Puerto Rico, in just under six months.

I think my background is unique, and fits cell therapy and viral-vector-modified cell therapy particularly. I now have 10-plus years of technical experience within a broad range of topics. That's what sparked CytoImmune’s interest in hiring me – combination of molecular biotech and virology.

Part of the team that established CytoImmune were from OcyonBio. I started collaborating with them when this facility (see part one) was still conceptual. Along the line, I fell in love with enabling innovation & supporting therapy developers establish their products.

I’m proud of the small team a lead in the Cell & Gene Therapy Unit at OcyonBio  – majorly composed of women. It’s inspiring to work alongside such strong and hardworking group paving the way for more female representation in leadership roles.”

The Challenges

Here, questions are mine, replies Ortiz-Rosa’s.

Has being a woman (in pharma in Puerto Rico, where you’ve spent your entire life), been a direct challenge to your career path?

“I don't think it has been a direct challenge, but I have definitely been aware that being a young woman in any leading role – it being this industry or any other – is quite challenging overall.

But I think times are changing. As new generations rise and take leadership roles in the next few years, this is going to be more a challenge of the past.”

But it’s still challenging now?

“Yes, but I can't pinpoint any specific instant where I've found it to be a direct challenge.

Perhaps part of that is because I remain centered on my career,  and professional and self-development. Still, being a woman is something I always have in mind; I figure out how to minimize any challenges that arise from that.”

Can you provide an example?

“Most of it comes down to some smaller things I'm conscious about, starting with appearance.

For example, I tend to stick with neutral colors rather than bright colors when meeting new clients. I also make a conscious effort to use a lower tone of voice, as it conveys confidence and professionalism. I’m conscious of how a carry myself.”

Let me challenge you a bit. Don’t most of us worry about what we're wearing and how we look and speak?

 I'm wondering if women today are being told of how the workplace and attitudes used to be, and then kind of worrying about that, whether it's actually the case anymore?  

“Despite not having personally faced many tough situations in this regard, I believe that it's still an important issue that needs to be addressed.

The lack of representation of women in higher leadership roles is a concerning indicator in our industry.

It's essential we create more opportunities for mentorship, and encourage young women to aspire to these positions. I'm grateful I can personally have an impact on other women's aspirations.

Seeing themselves represented in higher roles can be empowering and enable them to achieve their goals. While progress is being made, it will take time and effort from everyone in the industry to continue creating opportunities for women in leadership roles.”