It’s important for women, especially those in positions of power, to confront historical stereotypes and instances of bias wherever they see them in the workplace, urged a physician who pioneered women’s careers in the health and science professions.

She also prevailed upon women not to be the barrier to female advancement.

“Remember the people who helped you along the way and model what you do on those things that helped you,” said Dr. Vivian Pinn, the keynote at Thursday’s MM&M Hall of Femme. Dr. Pinn, whose many groundbreaking roles include founder and inaugural head of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health, helped pierce the color and gender barrier in medicine when she entered the field in the 1960s.

Conversely, she advised attendees to “think of those negative [people] in your careers so you can make sure you are not like them.” By way of illustration, she shared an anecdote:

“I can remember there was only one woman full professor in medical school when I was there, and she was so nasty to me and the nurses. Just having a position of power doesn’t mean they will necessarily help. And that was probably how I got into mentoring so early on, because the fact that there wasn’t a senior woman I could go to, and I saw how she treated the nurses.”

That Dr. Pinn’s only female prof also happened to be her toughest alludes to a phenomenon that is alive and well in the pharma industry, too, and one which could be contributing to the lack of women in well-paying, senior positions. That is, the terrible but real phenomenon that there can only be one woman on top: The queen bee.

According to one recent analysis, in 2018 fewer than 10% of pharma and biotech CEOs were women, just 16 of the 194 execs for whom data was available. “Female CEOs earned slightly less, by about 9% on a median basis, although the small number of data points makes drawing conclusions difficult,” reporters wrote.

What is holding women back from breaking into, and staying in, this rarefied group? It’s not a “pipeline” issue, said Dr. Pinn, given the high number of bright, young women moving up the ranks. For one, organizations have not universally embraced gender and other types of diversity, and even when they do, there are issues of implicit and explicit bias.

To a large extent, she said, it’s also because not enough is being done to foster their progress once they’re welcomed into the senior ranks. And in some cases, the herd is being thinned out by queen bees targeting other women climbing the ladder.

Consider the latest figures on layoffs. The pharma industry shed about 2,600 jobs so far this year, vs. 3,900 at the same time a year ago, per placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Given some of the big M&A moves, like Bristol-Myers Squibb’s takeover of Celgene, more layoffs are expected. The job-cut data, collected from public layoff announcements, unfortunately does not include gender breakdowns.

Anecdotal evidence is noteworthy here and suggests that a disproportionate number of highly accomplished women are leaving pharma, either willingly or not.

“When I pull from people I know in my network, we do work in an area that is contracting,” said Nancy Phelan, CEO of Adhera Therapeutics, “It’s going to continue to contract. Women executives in their 40s and 50s are getting displaced disproportionately relative to some of their peers.

“I think there’s something happening that I don’t fully understand that is resulting in a lot of female executives leaving large organizations in big numbers and not bridging back in,” continued Phelan during a panel at the MM&M event on changes that can help women advance. “I still think there’s some more work to do.”

Many companies in biopharma, and perhaps among the employers of the aforementioned departing women execs, have women leadership programs and male mentor programs. That likely isn’t the issue here. I would submit that it’s a Queen Bee problem.

It’s not that a large number of the women I’ve asked to name their worst boss have confessed that it was another woman. And I’ve never researched this.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and the well-known University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant did look into it, however, and they all but dismissed the idea in a New York Times op/ed called The Myth of the Catty Woman.” In it, they noted that instances of women helping other women are actually more the norm.

Queen Bees aren’t the cause of inequality but actually a result of it, a natural reaction to discrimination from those in the non-dominant group, wrote Sandberg and Grant.

“Queen Bees exist, but they’re far less common than we think,” they concluded.

Or, is it just that the Queen Bees are hard to see? Especially by men who may dismiss it as “high school.” But the behaviors of spreading misinformation, isolating and corporate bullying are real, say women I’ve spoken to, and can undo careers that are built on decades of top performance.

This isn’t the only driver but it is a surprisingly common theme, these female execs say. You may chalk it up to something more simple like losing an internal power struggle. And in a way, that’s what it is, but the impact is far more sinister.

This isn’t just high school behavior; this is middle school behavior, and it has to stop. Keeping these Queen Bees and promoting them – in effect, sanctioning their behavior – guarantees that the industry will not make progress.

And no amount of internal womens’ leadership training will solve the problem, as those programs are focused on women developing themselves and solving the “man problem,” which isn’t the issue at the executive level.  

I remain hopeful that, to the extent they exist, queen bee shenanigans are seen, solved and eliminated. Until then, expect to see continued salary and promotion gaps.

As for that woman professor Dr. Pinn encountered early in her career? “As an aside, we just had our [medical school] class reunion,” she shared. “The guys thought she was one of the best of the old professors, and l’m like, ‘We need a few discussions about that.’ I want to be sure I would never be seen like that woman, or as a woman who could not be good and kind and promote other women.”