Dr. Leen Kawas Advocates for Removal of the “Glass Ceiling” in the Biotech Industry

Leen Kawas
7 min readJun 22

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Dr. Leen Kawas, Managing General Partner at Propel Bio Partners, highlights the need to remove the glass ceiling in the biotech industry.

As the United States biotechnology industry continues its evolution, leadership opportunities and venture capital are two major factors driving the trend. However, female biotech entrepreneurs often face a “glass ceiling” that limits their forward progress. These women also lack sufficient opportunities to raise funding to advance their technology and build their companies.

Leen Kawas, Ph. D. is a successful entrepreneur and bioscientist and now, is Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner. Dr. Kawas recently framed this nationwide problem and offered four recommendations for smashing the glass ceiling.

The Concept of the “Glass Ceiling”

The phrase “glass ceiling” describes an invisible ─ but unbreachable ─ barrier that prevents women from receiving a promotion to high-level positions within a company or industry. The term is most often applied to male-dominated workplaces and/or industries (including the biotechnology industry).

For perspective, these barriers to promotion aren’t spelled out in corporate policies and/or procedures. Instead, these obstacles are unwritten trends impacted by inherent biases in the workplace. The glass ceiling is what also prevents women lead companies from raising capital and limiting them from becoming prominent leaders of well-established companies.

The Glass Ceiling’s Decades-Old History

In 1991, The U.S. Department of Labor announced the formation of the Glass Ceiling Commission. The Commission was born of women’s and minorities’ growing concerns about the lack of career advancement. The Commission was tasked with noting existing barriers and identifying corporate policies that would increase diversity in the managerial and executive ranks.

The Glass Ceiling Commission issued two major findings. First, the body determined that qualified women and minorities were not given opportunities to compete for (and/or win) key decision-based positions. Secondly, the Commission learned that employees and employers often foster stereotypical negative assumptions about women and minorities.

How the Glass Ceiling Impacts Professional Women

In early 2022, the Society for Human Resource Management published a survey of human resource (or HR) professionals, HR managers, and individual contributors. The survey results showed that female managers have a stronger likelihood of aspiring to higher-level positions compared to male managers. The women were motivated by a desire to assume different (or additional) responsibilities. Alternatively, they felt they would excel in a higher-level role.

However, companies have an unusually low number of women in top-tier leadership roles. The study also noted that compared to male employees, women were less likely to benefit from concrete managerial support in rising to a higher-level leadership position.

Compared to male managers, female managers weren’t as likely to feel included in key organizational networks. These leadership networks would ideally provide support for women transitioning into senior-level roles. Finally, only half of surveyed human resources professionals said their company’s senior leaders are held accountable for providing male and female employees with similar access to leadership role pathways.

Dr. Leen Kawas Advocates Shattering the Biotech Glass Ceiling

Regardless of the industry, cracking ─ and then shattering ─ the glass ceiling is no small feat. In a male-dominated industry such as biotechnology, it’s an especially challenging uphill battle. Leen Kawas, Ph. D. brings a distinctive perspective to this overarching mission.

Dr. Leen Kawas is Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner. This Los Angeles-based venture capital firm seeks biotech entrepreneurs who demonstrate the right combination of creativity and passion for their missions. As an accomplished biotechnologist and successful executive entrepreneur, Dr. Kawas brings an impressive skillset to her role.

Dr. Kawas previously served as the high-achieving founder and Chief Executive Officer (or CEO) of Athira Pharma. During her tenure, she guided several promising drug discoveries and coordinated the firm’s initial public offering in September 2020 raising over $400 million during her tenure.

Dr. Leen Kawas said the United States’ biotech community, and the women entrepreneurs integral to its growth, have a joint responsibility to help increase the number of women biotech leaders. She believes that, over time, these joint efforts will begin to produce tangible results.

4 Complementary Strategies Can Drive a Turnaround

Defining a problem’s scope is key to formulating an effective solution. In June 2022, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization published its annual “Measuring Diversity in the Biotech Industry” publication. As of press time, the report stated that only 20 percent of the biotech industry’s CEOs were women. Only 34 percent of biotech executive teams were composed of women.

Dr. Leen Kawas is optimistic that the biotech industry’s evolution will spur more women CEOs and executives. “I believe we will see more women in leadership roles as the industry continues to mature and become more diverse…The next generation of leaders will be more inclusive, and we’re already seeing that happen.

“At Propel, we aim to be part of the change,” Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized. She offered four strategies to help facilitate women entrepreneurs’ growth and industry visibility.

Ensure More Funding for Women-Led Businesses

Companies that receive more funding tend to be more successful. This is likely due to the firm’s ability to better fund its operations, including key research projects. Unfortunately, said Dr. Leen Kawas, women-owned businesses have seen their funding reduced in the past few years.

“Funding for female-founded companies has not improved in recent years and has, in fact, decreased. Only 2.0 percent of venture capital went to these companies in 2021, down from its height of 2.8% in 2009.

“Only 12 percent of decision-makers in investment firms are women, and 65 percent don’t have any women in their senior leaders and decision-makers,” Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized. This relative scarcity of female investors may be a key reason why women-led businesses receive decreased funds compared to male-run companies.

Banish Hidden Bias from the Equation

A hidden bias factor often slows (or obstructs) women’s upward progression in their chosen fields. Dr. Leen Kawas affirms the existence of this inherent gender prejudice. This bias extends to some venture capital firms’ gender-biased questions during the funding application process.

Specifically, some venture capitalists present different questions to male and female entrepreneurs. Men are typically asked about strategies related to the organization’s gains. In contrast, women receive questions about the organization’s risks. Revamping the funding allocation criteria could potentially eliminate this hidden bias and create an equal playing field.

Establish a Robust Mentorship Program

Professionals who receive a mentor’s guidance are typically able to obtain the skills they need to perform their jobs well. Many mentees are frequently inspired to excel in their positions and pursue higher-level opportunities.

For perspective, 67 percent of women think a mentorship arrangement can help advance their careers. In turn, these women will likely display 50 percent higher retention rates. With that said, 61 percent of women have never engaged in a formal mentorship arrangement.

Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized that many women in biotech would benefit from industry-specific mentors and/or role models. She is confident that ongoing mentorship will position these women for future biotech industry leadership roles.

Maintain a Strong Sponsorship Framework

An ongoing sponsorship agreement can take mentorship to the next level. Here, the sponsor uses their professional connections to further their sponsoree’s goals.

In August 2019, a Harvard Business Review study found that senior company leaders were less likely to sponsor women compared to men. Dr. Leen Kawas affirmed this finding, recognizing the need for women to find sponsors who can help them move into leadership roles.

“Women are less likely to find sponsors that help them advance their careers,” stated Dr. Kawas. “They need people who will actively help them get ahead within and outside their organizations,” she emphasized.

Two Organizations’ Proactive Programs

Two organizations have stepped up to address this challenge. The National Institutes of Health offers leadership development curricula for women in biomedical sciences work.

The Society for Women’s Health Research also focuses on the biotech industry, offering educational and networking events for women in this arena. These offerings can help women develop the skills and establish connections needed to excel in leadership positions and ideally find senior-level sponsors.

Retooling Existing Sponsorship Programs

With that said, however, many firms have paused their formal sponsorship programs. This occurred for two potentially related reasons. First, executives often felt pressured to sponsor women with whom they did not have a strong professional connection.

Other executives were pushed to advocate for women who (in the execs’ opinion) needed more experience. These situations would seem to call for a restructuring of existing sponsorship frameworks.

Women in Life Sciences Leadership Roles: A Prediction

In April 2023, a respected life sciences and healthcare consultant predicted that more women would assume leadership positions in these industries. Lynne Sterrett, RN is the National Consulting Leader for Life Sciences and Health Care at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

“I am cautiously optimistic that more women will move into positions of leadership in healthcare and life sciences. Here’s one reason: Several large tech companies have made public commitments to improving gender diversity, including increasing women in their technical and leadership ranks.

“Here’s another [reason]: A growing number of women are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math/computer science (or STEM). While women accounted for just 45 percent of students pursuing STEM degrees in 2020, that percentage is up from 40 percent 10 years earlier, and 34 percent in 1994,” she noted.

Mentorship of Potential Life Sciences Leaders

Finally, Ms. Sterrett emphasized that current female STEM leaders should find ways to mentor young women. As part of this effort, the mentors should nurture a possible interest in healthcare and life sciences careers.

“But along with STEM degrees, future healthcare and life sciences leaders are likely going to need role models, mentors, and programs that can help set them on a path toward leadership. I encourage women who are now working in STEM to look for opportunities to mentor girls and young women and expose them to possible careers in health care and life sciences,” Lynne Sterrett, RN concluded.

Dr. Leen Kawas Predicts More Women Biotech Leaders

Dr. Leen Kawas is decidedly optimistic about women’s leadership opportunities in the biotech industry. She emphasized Propel Bio Partners’ commitment to helping women entrepreneurs move forward in an expeditious and effective manner. Propel’s integration of funding, mentorship, and sponsorship provides a solid foundation for success in this highly competitive industry.

Originally published at https://www.digitaljournal.com.

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Leen Kawas

Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology and entrepreneur