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Athena Strives to Prepare Female Members for Top Executive Roles

Athena, a technology and life sciences trade group for women, is working against some tough statistics.

Just 4 percent of board members at local biotech and technology public companies are women, according to an Athena study. Nationwide, that number is 11 percent, according to Catalyst, a national nonprofit organization that does research on women in the workplace.

As Athena nears 20 years in existence in San Diego, the group has moved from a networking outlet to one focused on equipping women with the skills they need to climb a corporate ladder often shaped around schmoozing at golf outings, post-work cocktails and power lunches.

Based at the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego, the 500-member nonprofit, which was scheduled to hold its annual awards luncheon April 20, has stepped up its educational forums in recent years and has launched On Board, an initiative that encourages women to serve on company boards.


Workshops

The campaign offers workshops about how to market oneself and how to become “board-ready,” including learning about legal obligations of being a board member.

Women and men build business relationships differently, said Jeanine Jacobson, a former hospital executive who is executive director at Athena. She said these workshops help women find ways to navigate and excel in a male-dominated business world.

“We don’t ask,” Jacobson said. “We never say we would like to sit on a company board. We work hard, and think that people should notice and know what we’re about.”

She said women tend to work with people who have demonstrated a quality work ethic, while men are more willing to work with people based on recommendation or association with other people or organizations.

Jacobson said not having a large number of women in the decision-making roles makes it more difficult for women to get promoted and reach those positions.

To change that, the On Board series, overseen by Karin Eastham, chief operating officer of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, has invited men and women who serve on local boards to Athena panel discussions.

“In the life sciences, I’ve found a great opening , a welcoming atmosphere,” Eastham said. “I’ve found it to be that once you break into the boardroom, and you can demonstrate some training and responsibility, other doors are opened to you.”

Eastham isn’t the only woman in life sciences who isn’t afraid to ask.

Ginger Graham, former chief executive officer of Amylin Pharmaceuticals Inc., led one of the most successful biotechs locally through the federal approval and marketing of two popular diabetes drugs, Byetta and Symlin.

Diane Goostree is CEO at Artes Medical Inc.; Tina Nova is CEO and co-founder of Genoptix Inc. and has been involved in founding two other biotech companies here; and Catherine “Kitty” Mackey is senior vice president of Pfizer Inc.’s Global Research and Development and head of its La Jolla research operation.


Ways To Go

Biocom CEO Joe Panetta said while there are many examples of successful women in the life sciences industry, there is still “a ways to go.”

“There’s not so much an attitude against women being in top positions, I think there’s more an attitude among women that they can’t pursue these roles,” Panetta said, adding that those companies that do have female executives have been successful.

Panetta offered a theory as to why San Diego’s percentage of women on tech and life sciences public company boards is so much lower , 4 percent , when compared with the nationwide figure of 11 percent.

“San Diego is a very technology-focused community,” said Panetta, whose San Diego-based life sciences trade group represents 540 firms. “For that reason, women tend to be in more research-focused positions that don’t have the opportunity to move up the management chain.”

But a 2004 study by a San Diego group called BEST, or Building Engineering and Science Talent, said that while women comprised half of the college-degreed U.S. work force, they make up less than 25 percent of the science and engineering work force, regardless of ethnicity or race.

Women are most fully represented in the life sciences, but account for just 23 percent of physical scientists and 10 percent of engineers, according to the study.

BEST is a public-private partnership to pursue recommendations of the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development.

In a Catalyst study that surveyed more than 900 senior level women and men from Fortune 500 companies, both sexes have equal desires to be a CEO.

“We’re not necessarily out there on the golf course networking,” said Athena President Lisa Haile, an attorney at DLA Piper who also holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology. “It’s not that I can’t golf, I just never get out to go on Fridays. It’s a stereotype, but you hear the guys talking all the time. (Golf) helps them. There’s no female equivalent. We just have to do it differently.”

She said that includes going to breakfast meetings, lunch and dinner meetings, getting drinks after work, and attending cultural events or shows.

There are a couple of other women’s high-tech or life sciences groups here, though they are local chapters for national organizations, including the Association for Women in Science, or AWIS, as well as Women in Technology, known as WITI. Athena is geared more, however, toward women executives.

“It’s just difficult for a woman to get certain positions,” Haile said. “It’s uncommon for females to be CEOs. You just don’t see it.”

But Haile said Athena’s programs have been inspiring.

“It helps to go to a program and hear women in power talk , almost scolding us for not sitting on the inside,” she said.

Connie Matsui is executive vice president of knowledge and innovative networks at life sciences powerhouse Biogen-Idec. Matsui manages Web-based communications channels and the company library, as well as university relations.

Matsui has been in life sciences for at least 15 years, and said the field is more conducive to women than other industries by its very technical nature.

“There’s a big enough premium on individual capability and knowledge that people look beyond the package it comes in,” Matsui said. “The tension women face in leading a well-balanced life is at the heart of the biggest obstacles , not limitation on women’s ability.”

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