Diversity on the Menu at BioMelbourne Network lunch

Ok so if I had a room that seated 350 people and I was putting on say an Alex Perry fashion show how many women do you think I could get to fill that room?  Most people would expect me to fill it right?  Now imagine if I had the same room, same capacity but I told you there would be no fashion show, rather the event I was organising was an exclusive women’s networking event for the biotechnology industry…AND guess what? attendees would have to PAY to go along….what do you reckon?  Could I fill that room? 

Well for sure I couldn’t fill it but Michelle Gallaher, CEO of the BioMelbourne Network has filled that room and she’s done it every year for the past four years.  In fact a couple of Friday’s ago she asked the very question you may be asking yourself…why?  Why do women from the biotechnology sector flock to an exclusive women only lunch?  Why indeed…Michelle asked Dr Debbie Drane, Vice President Business Development at CSL (a Premier Sponsor of the BioMelbourne Network and regular supporter of the lunch).   Debbie’s response was very simple, “we don’t need an exclusively female lunch…the truth is we WANT one.” 

Now to those sceptics  who shake their finger and with furrowed brow, tutt tutt that these sorts of exclusive lunches foster a clubby chummy atmosphere that stifles diversity – I must protest, this is no beef and burgundy lunch.  Rather, the annual BioMelbourne Women in Biotechnology Lunch is an event that brings together women who work in roles that cover the full spectrum from the research and biotechnology ecosystem. 

In fact this year’s audience included women  from education, research and discovery, clinical development, regulatory affairs, government, funding, medicine, sales, business development and licensing, law, accounting, design, manufacturing, investor relations and public affairs. 

Interestingly Michelle’s theme was diversity in leadership.  “Diversity,” Michelle noted, “is leveraged through inclusion.  You cannot apply a Noah’s ark approach to diversity.    Simply having a diverse workforce is not enough. It is a fact that teams from diverse backgrounds avoid the group think mentality and those companies with homogenous leadership teams are courting risk. ”

Speaking about gender diversity, Michelle referred to a paper published by US based research group Catalyst in 2011 which found that of the Fortune 500 companies that had the highest representation of women on their board experienced better financial performance on average than those with the lowest representation. 

While various initiatives to increase the number of women in management teams and the board room has seen  a dramatic increase in female representation on boards, a report by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (August 2011) noted that women still only made up 12.7% of the total membership of ASX200 boards.

So, Michelle asked another of her panellists, Dr Jackie Fairley CEO and President of market darling Starpharma Holdings – do we need quotas to change the make-up of Australian companies?  What was her view of gender quotas?

“I don’t believe in quotas…….this is partly because I don’t always view success  or the prize as being the top job.  At Starpharma we foster a diversity of thinking amongst our team by creating an inclusive culture which is based on mutual respect and humour.”

Dr Jia-Yee Lee, Director of the Health Buisness Area at National ICT Australia added to the discussion on diversity.  In her view leaders needed to take responsibility for achieving diversity in the workplace – even though those environments were tougher to manage.  Dr Jia-Yee Lee also emphasised the role spirituality had played in laying a foundation for her own leadership style and success.

As she does every year, Michelle Gallaher both entertained and educated and the wonderful thing about this lunch is even if you don’t win one of the lucky door prizes – or any of the fantastic array of items in the BioMelbourne “Monster raffle”, every single woman who attends this lunch walks away with something far more valuable.  For me that something is the inspiration I get from the amazing women Michelle secures to speak at these events, the invaluable insights they impart upon us and most of all the karma that comes from building a virtuous network of women from a range of diverse backgrounds.


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