Dr. Leen Kawas Outlines 2024’s Challenges (and Opportunities) for Female Biotechnology Leaders

Leen Kawas
8 min readJan 26, 2024

Dr. Leen Kawas, a biotechnology expert, highlights the myriad of current challenges and opportunities within the traditionally male-dominated biotechnology industry.

As the new year emerges, the global biotechnology market expansion shows no signs of slowing down. Precedence Research , a recognized market insights provider, estimated the global biotech market at USD 1,224.31 billion in 2022. By 2030, the worldwide biotech marketplace is projected to carry a USD 3,210.71 billion valuation. This represents a 12.8 percent Compound Annual Growth Rate (or CAGR) from 2023 to 2030.

Today, biotechnology encompasses fields such as molecular biology, biochemistry, and genetics. Scientists and medical researchers use these technologies to find therapies for chronic and infectious diseases and genetic disorders. Targeted gene therapies show promise in the treatment (and perhaps prevention) of certain conditions.

Finally, artificial intelligence (or AI) applications are playing an ever-increasing role in biotechnology research and production. Biotech firms are also realizing significant time and cost savings thanks to AI’s documentation and large data set manipulation capabilities. New AI applications continue to emerge at a steady pace.

Dr. Leen Kawas Notes the Lack of Women in Life Sciences Leadership Roles

Leen Kawas, Ph.D. is a seasoned biotechnology leader who previously served as Athira Pharma, Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer (or CEO). In addition to overseeing multiple drug development cycles, Dr. Kawas managed Athira’s Initial Public Offering in September 2020. During her seven years with the company, Dr. Kawas raised more than $400 million in capital investments.

Today, Dr. Kawas excels as Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner. Based in Los Angeles, this biotech-focused venture capital firm supports emerging and early-stage biotechnology entrepreneurs in two distinct ways. First, Propel provides its partners with a beneficial capital investment that helps fund operations and targeted research.

Second, Propel Bio Partners’ industry experts provide the high-level technical expertise needed to move emerging and early-stage biotechnology businesses forward. Although Dr. Kawas objectively considers every funding candidate, she is especially interested in partnering with female or minority biotech entrepreneurs.

As with any growing industry, dynamic, visionary leaders play a key role in moving their respective companies forward. Ideally, these leaders will emerge from equally represented demographic groups. However, Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized that the life sciences (including biotechnology) industry does not currently meet this standard.

To illustrate, in January 2020 BiopharmaDive released the results of a BIO trade organization survey of 107 biotechnology companies. For background, women make up about half of the surveyed companies’ respective workforces.

However, women only occupy roughly 30 percent of executive positions and 18 percent of Board of Directors’ roles. Among the surveyed businesses, about four-fifths of the CEOs are men and nearly 90 percent of this group are white men. In Dr. Leen Kawas’ view, these numbers clearly indicate the need for diversity in the biotech leadership ranks.

For perspective, the majority of the surveyed firms are smaller, and nearly half of them are privately owned. In these smaller companies, women and minorities are more likely to hold executive positions compared to larger firms. Looking at the bigger picture, the executive suite is clearly lacking in equal representation of women and minorities.

During a article interview , Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized that women who achieve life sciences leadership roles foster three desirable outcomes. “There’s a lot of research showing when you have a woman on the helm (or part of the executive team), returns are higher, cultures are more inclusive, and innovation has a different, unique flavor,” Dr. Kawas explained.

That said, Dr. Leen Kawas stated the male-dominated life sciences industry has an inherent bias in promoting men to leadership roles. “Women don’t get promoted as much as men. If it’s a man who’s promoting another person, they relate to the experience of the males, not the woman. It’s easier for them to make that promotion,” Dr. Kawas said.

The “Glass Ceiling” has Been Augmented by a “Glass Floor”

The “glass ceiling” phrase refers to an intangible ─ but impenetrable ─ barrier that prohibits women from advancing to higher-level positions in their company or industry. The glass ceiling is frequently discussed in relation to male-dominated work settings or industries.

Many life sciences firms (including biotechnology companies) have institutionalized the glass ceiling into their operations. Not surprisingly, the glass ceiling also makes it difficult for women-led life sciences firms to raise capital to grow their businesses. Comparable male-led companies have a better chance of receiving needed funding.

In March 2022, the Society for Human Resource Management (or SHRM) surveyed human resource (or HR) managers, HR professionals, and individual contributors. Participants’ responses showed that surveyed firms have an unusually small number of women who occupy high-level leadership roles. In addition, women aren’t as likely to benefit from strong managerial support while traveling the path to top-tier executive positions.

Further, the SHRM survey showed that female managers are less likely to be invited into leadership networks. These often exclusive networks are considered essential for advancing through the corporate ranks. Finally, only about half of the surveyed HR respondents said their firm’s senior leadership is held accountable for ensuring male and female workers have similar access to leadership pathways.

Audacity Health CEO and Chief Strategy Officer Jill Collins is well aware that women leaders face an uphill battle in the health and life sciences industries. Writing in a Forbes Council article , Collins states that these talented women are currently facing a “glass floor” that limits their leadership potential.

While women in STEM may have finally broken the glass ceiling to achieve leadership roles, the reality is that now we are standing on a glass floor. It feels like simultaneously paving the way forward and being held back because many steps still include continued gender bias and unfair expectations, requiring extra effort not to slip.

“Achieving gender equity in health and science leadership is not about increasing numbers for the sake of reflecting population ratios; it’s about filling a critical gap in a unique perspective, capability, and expertise that can ensure a healthier, safer future for everyone.

“It is a privilege to be a CEO in an industry that supports life-changing innovation. But I can still see through the glass floor, and I don’t want to be one of the few women who made it. I want to lift up other brilliant women in health and science, where we can lead together on a path that provides solid footing for everyone,” Jill Collins emphasized.

Dr. Leen Kawas Highlights Four Strategies to Help Turn the Tide

Complex problems generally don’t resolve themselves, and the deficit of female life sciences leaders is no exception. However, Dr. Leen Kawas believes that the biotechnology industry’s evolution will naturally lead to an increase in the number of female 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 remarked. She outlined four strategies that can together achieve this worthwhile goal.

When a business receives more investor funds, the company can more effectively conduct operations and engage in relevant research. However, Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized that women-led firms have recently seen a decrease in investment dollars.

“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 stated. With fewer women making investment decisions, it’s not surprising that women-led companies don’t receive as much funding as male-run firms. If more women assume decision-making roles, the playing field could be well-positioned for change.

By necessity, a venture capital (or VC) funding application includes questions regarding the candidate’s operations logistics, and financial data. However, some VC firms also ask gender-biased questions, potentially casting male and female candidates in different lights.

To illustrate, men are often given questions about strategies designed to move the company forward. Women must answer questions about the business’ risks. Dr. Leen Kawas recommends that all candidates receive the same questions, thus taking this hidden bias out of the mix.

When newer professionals consistently work with a mentor, they are better able to learn the skills needed to excel in their jobs. With increased mastery of their work, many mentees shift their focus to higher-level positions.

In fact, 67 percent of women believe working with a mentor can benefit the mentee’s career prospects. With this positive reinforcement, mentees are likely to display a 50 percent increase in retention rates. However, 61 percent of women haven’t ever worked with a mentor.

Dr. Leen Kawas strongly believes that many female biotechnology professionals would benefit from working with an industry-specific mentor. With this structure in place, mentees will be well-positioned to move into company (and perhaps industry) leadership positions.

In any industry, a dedicated sponsor (or advocate) can help their sponsoree gain access to valuable professional connections. In fact, an effective sponsorship framework can provide a catalyst for the sponsoree’s career growth.

That said, Dr. Leen Kawas acknowledged that women find it more difficult to find these valuable career advocates. “Women are less likely to find sponsors that help them advance their careers…They need people who will actively help them get ahead within and outside their organizations,” Dr. Kawas emphasized.

To illustrate, Dr. Leen Kawas received support from advocates while navigating Athira Pharma’s funding challenges. She understands the benefits of these dedicated, well-connected industry professionals. “Find mentors, but most importantly, find advocates. Find those who will advocate for you to grow professionally and personally,” Dr. Leen Kawas concluded.

Dr. Leen Kawas Actively Supports Female Biotechnology Leaders’ Growth

Dr. Leen Kawas believes the United States biotechnology community can benefit from more women in CEO and executive roles. As Propel Bio Partners’ managing general partner, Dr. Kawas ensures that qualified female and minority entrepreneurs receive much-needed funding and technical expertise. This assistance enables these biotechnology entrepreneurs to grow their emerging or early-stage companies.

“I’m not just investing in women or minorities ─ I’m investing in diversity because this will bring the best innovation and the best returns. There are studies that show that in women-led companies, or companies that have women executives, there are higher returns to the shareholders,” Dr. Leen Kawas summarized. While this is an optimal outcome, she also prioritizes female leaders’ professional and personal growth.

Originally published at https://businesstimenow.com on January 26, 2024.