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08 March 2024

D, E & I: VIEWS FROM LEADERSHIP SERIES - Lene Gerlach, Founder and Chair of Women in Life Science Denmark (WiLD), and Partner at Eir Ventures

In the latest installment of our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Leadership series, we spoke to Lene Gerlach, Founder and Chair of Women in Life Science Denmark (WiLD), and Partner at Eir Ventures, a Nordic Life Science Venture Fund.

I want to say to all women: ‘find your inner Stone Age Hunter and go out there and win the battle, get the job that you want or fight for achieving the goals that you have set in the job that you already have. You can do it; women also have the hunter instinct!!
Lene Gerlach
Founder and Chair of Women in Life Science Denmark (WiLD), and Partner at Eir Ventures, a Nordic Life Science Venture Fund

Coulter Partners: In 2022 you founded Women in Life Science Denmark (WiLD). Please tell us about its creation, vision and ambitions.

Lene Gerlach: WiLD is a network for female top-level managers, board of directors and experienced scientists in the life science industry, as well as leaders in academia. The purpose of the network is to support the value creation in the Life Science field by leveraging and promoting diversity of talent. The ambition is to create an inspiring and science-centric network forum for women across industry and academia and increase the visibility of women in top leadership roles. By acting as active role models, WiLD members wish to inspire the next generation of women to realize their full potential and assume leadership positions. The focus of WiLD is on gender diversity, but we strive to promote diversity and inclusiveness in various ways, including age, nationality, background, education, experience etc.

Despite numerous initiatives, there are still barriers to equality with regards to diversity in leadership positions in both corporate and academic institutions. Both in Denmark generally – and particularly within Life Science. Within Europe, Denmark is in 23rd place on the World Economic Forum’s list of gender equality,[1] while our neighboring countries Finland, Norway and Sweden list in the top 5. Despite many women being educated and working within the Life Sciences, there is a lack of gender equality at the top leadership level. Only 26% of the largest companies are led by women, and at the universities, only 23% of professors are women.

CP: Why in your opinion, has it been so vital to build a sector-specific voice in the region?

Lene: The reason why WiLD is sector-specific … it’s what I know. I’m a human biologist by training, I have a PhD in neuroscience and for the last 24 years I've been working within the life science industry from drug development, through to medtech devices and digital healthcare platform development. For the last decade I have been involved in financing life science start-ups and it has become my mission to help society benefit from great innovations and all the research within academia. It is very close to my heart. There is a very high quality of research and innovation in Denmark within life science due to the history of the Danish industry, for example, with Lundbeck, Leo Pharma, Novozymes and Novo Nordisk, which is now the fourteenth largest company in the world based on drug revenue.[2]

As an investor, I have assisted early-stage life science companies to build management teams and boards. In doing this I realized that my network of skilled candidates was made up of predominately men. In my position, I felt that I had a responsibility to provide gender-balanced candidates for these positions. I signed up to an organisation called Board Women Denmark (Bestyrelseskvinder),[3] but there were not many women there representing the life science industry … so I thought, what can I do now?

One day I was actually sitting in traffic when the idea of WiLD came to me. There and then I started phoning the experienced women within my network and pitched the idea of creating a science-centric female network. Everyone I called that day thought it was a great idea and wanted to help. The next day I called more women who also all said yes and in the following days, I continued... Three months later there were 11 of us involved in driving this forward.

We established the network in September 2022 and now over a year later we are 214 members representing more than 140 companies and institutions.

It feels like we have started a movement. It’s like there has been a need for this kind of an organization. Our aim is not only to increase the visibility of women in top leadership positions but also be active role models; our mission is to contribute to value creation through generosity, professional knowledge sharing, and networking.

After receiving funding from both the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Lundbeck Foundation, in November last year we started a mentorship programme for talented women that are facing a new career step. Currently, we have 11 mentor and mentee partnerships as a trial and next year we will launch 20 to 25. We are really excited about this. As a mentor myself, compared to other programmes, we have been able to offer a more structured programme run by an external provider, with regular evaluation of progress, all enabled through a digital platform.

At the heart of our mission is unfolding the full talent potential in the life science industry, especially in Denmark. Women make up 53% of the life science industry but only make up 20% of the top management positions and boards.[4] There is a talent pool we are not exploiting.

CP: How do you as an investor best guide the leadership teams of your portfolio companies? Would you say the responsibilities around good D, E & I and ESG practices lie with investors?

Lene: Definitely yes, I think that venture capitalists have a huge responsibility.

VCs invest very early and we are shaping companies alongside their management teams and if we implement both ESG and D, E and I strategies early, at company creation, we can then make a huge difference. We are actively measuring the gender diversity of our portfolio companies and we have really good metrics compared to others.

At EIR ventures we're four women and three men and that ratio is really reflected in our investment portfolio. In around a quarter of our portfolio companies – we have 18 in total, there's a female CEO, and in 77% of them, we have women in the boards.

We are also an Article 8 fund, so we have to comply with the sustainable financial disclosure regulation; we are reporting on both environmental, social, and governance parameters and from the beginning we have reported on senior leadership diversity. We also look into all the other types of parameters within ESG. How do we do this? We insist that ESG is on the agenda at board meetings. We need to understand the ESG policy, the ESG plan and the development of the organisation, along with the goals regarding gender, ethnic and age diversity. We also use our network to propose candidates that will increase diversity.

CP: In a young startup, a biotech CEO or board has many challenges and many topics that they need to cover, how receptive are they to stipulations around diversity? We know that it's important to set the scene early on and to have the right culture and the right thinking from the very top levels of the organisation but how receptive are they to take on some of these actions?

Lene: I haven't really experienced reluctancy or barriers. These leaders are science and fact driven, and there is a lot of analyses showing that the higher diversity in both your management and boards, the stronger your company’s performance. The numbers show that diversity really pays and it’s hard to argue against the facts! What I do hear is “but we cannot find skilled women for the position”; another reason why WiLD is so important, as it increases the visibility of skilled women.

CP: You've had a plural board career within the life sciences, so to what extent have you seen diversity on boards, particularly gender diversity, being done as a mere box ticking exercise versus recognizing the real operational value and functional excellence that a diverse board can bring?

Lene: I haven't really seen or experienced bringing diversity to boards as a tick box exercise.

I think maybe that might happen in larger companies where top management may not be close to their teams. The companies that I have worked at were comparatively much smaller. Even though I've been on the board I have always been close to the management teams on why this is important and we haven't really experienced barriers against hiring women. When you have a gender-balanced candidate field you choose people who best fit the team.

It is not just competency that matters but also chemistry. I have just been heading the hiring committee in a company where I am a board member, and we had both a female and a male candidate for the chair position and chose the male candidate because that was the best fit for the company and that is how it should be.

CP: Absolutely. Diversity is about getting beyond gender to find a real mix of different types of experience or ways of thinking, the cognitive diversity that enrich a board and the way that it functions.

Historically the Nordic region has been regarded as a diversity pioneer. More recently however, at senior levels and from a gender perspective, it would appear that Denmark is now being outpaced globally. This feels ironic given the large proportion of women in the workforce. What are your perspectives?

Lene: OECD has just published a new analysis[5] showing the probability of a woman getting a leadership position is higher in the Nordics (with the exception of Denmark) compared to the average of the other OECD countries. This has really surprised the general industry in Denmark … that the likelihood for a woman to get a leadership position in Denmark is lower.

If you look at the world's economic gender gap report since 2006, the Nordic countries have always been in the top five and Denmark was ranked 7 and 8 from 2006 to 2014. Since then Denmark has dropped in its ranking, whereas other Nordic countries, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, are still in the top five.

We are very puzzled about why Denmark has started to fall behind compared to its neighbors, given the size of its female workforce and high levels of education attainment amongst women. A recent, Danish analysis published in December last year by the Think Tank Kraka, showed the main barrier to becoming a top earner (20%+ percentile) is being a woman regardless of industry and education. It would appear that men have a greater opportunity to reach this top 20% earning cohort by comparison.[6]

There is a lot of analysis work going on in Denmark currently, to really explore the reasons for disparities.

Women and men are very divided in sectors. It is not very common, for example, for a man to be a nurse or for women to have what are considered predominately male roles such as CEO and board positions.

Denmark also experiences different perceptions of role type; sadly it’s still common for women not to be considered for CEO and other top positions, as they are perceived to be male roles. And there's so much unconscious bias, this is something I am very passionate about addressing.

We have always been taught that during the Stone Age, which constitutes 90% of the time humans have been on Earth, the man was the hunter and the woman was the gatherer, collecting berries, roots, and taking care of the offspring. This image has formed the perception of basic male and female instincts.

However, a recent study focusing on North and South America, Oceania, Asia and Europe, showed that in 80% of these hunter-gatherer societies, women were also the hunters.[7] They hunted as part of a normal routine, handling weapons and also killing big animals. So the truth is that women have been hunters all along. They have the power, they have the courage and they have the instinct to go out in the field and win the battle.

But historically society has always been told differently … that for 90% of humans’ time on earth women were berry gatherers. This is unconscious bias and it just isn’t true, women also have the hunter instinct. I want to say to all women: “You can do it, you can get the job you want and you can achieve the goals in your current position. Go and find your inner Stone Age hunter.”

[1] https://www.weforum.org/publications/global-gender-gap-report-2023/

[2] https://www.statista.com/topics/8584/novo-nordisk/

[3] https://www.bestyrelseskvinder.dk/

[4] https://pharmadanmark.dk/da/pharmadanmarks-life-science-barometer-2023

[5] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/oecd-economic-surveys-denmark-2024_d5c6f307-en

[6] https://kraka.dk/sites/default/files/public/_sgn13_final_web.pdf

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/maryroeloffs/2023/06/28/women-hunt-as-much-as-men-in-many-hunter-gatherer-societies-despite-age-old-stereotypes-study-finds/?sh=58d67c8654f6 ; OR ORIGINAL: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0287101

Lene Gerlach
Lene Gerlach is a Venture Capitalist specialized in Life Science investments. Having a profound scientific background. + 25 years’ experience with the life science industry as a research scientist, patent attorney, business developer, consultant on university spin-out corporations, Vice President in two biotech companies and 10 years as a venture capitalist having financed more than 35 companies, prepared follow-up capital rounds and executed company exits. Extensive board experience having headed 18 companies as Chairperson and 17 as board member or observer. Founder and Chair of Women in Life Science Denmark WiLD, a non-profit network organisation for executives and experts in the Life Science Industry, now counting >200 members from >140 companies and academic institutions.


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