Unlike dozens of Utah businesses, this biotech company won’t sign the ParityPledge to interview women for top jobs. Here’s why.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) BioFire's Kristen Kanack, vice president of regulatory and clinical affairs, left, Deepika de Silva, chief scientific officer, center, and Rachel Jones, chief commercial officer, outside the company's office in Research Park in Salt Lake City.

When BioFire first began making diagnostic equipment, it was a “typical” high-tech startup — “with all male executives and an all-male board board of directors,” says CEO Randy Rasmussen.

Today, the Utah company has three women and three men in its chief-level roles, or C-suite, and the six women on its senior leadership team outnumber the three men at that level.

Kristen Kanack, BioFire’s vice president of regulatory and clinical affairs, said promoting and hiring women has become the norm at the company.

“I think when you have a truly innovative culture you want and you crave to hear ideas from everybody, so you’re not going to want to shut off half your source of ideas,” Kanack said.

With that environment, BioFire doesn’t plan to sign the new ParityPledge, seeing it as an unnecessarily low expectation. Companies signing the pledge — which has no reporting requirement — vow to interview at least one qualified woman for job openings at the vice president level and higher, including their board of directors.

At the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City Thursday, Parity.org founder Cathrin Stickney announced that at least 40 Utah companies have signed the pledge.

“Companies that have [a diverse executive board] show a 15 percent increase in profitability over companies who don’t have that,” she said.

“It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do to bring women in your organization.”

A 2016 Harvard Business Review study found there’s statistically no chance a woman will be hired if she’s the only female in a large hiring pool.

But Josh James, who sits on the board of Parity.org and is the CEO at Domo, said his software company signed the pledge a few months ago, “and it does lead to change.”

“A VP role pops up and we’re like, ‘Oh, we need someone for that role. Oh, we know the perfect person,’” he said.

“And we go after that one person and we’re like ‘Oh, wait. Maybe we can find a better person.’ And that’s what [the pledge] forces you to do.”

‘Invisible to an all-male executive team’

The change at BioFire was deliberate, Rasmussen said in an email. The company was launched in Idaho Falls in 1990 as Idaho Technology before it moved to Salt Lake City, and it was acquired by bioMérieux in 2014. When he became the chief operating officer after the company’s first decade, he was committed to increasing diversity at the top.

“In some ways it was easy; we had many talented women ready to lead,” he said. “But of course there was resistance from some members of the boys’ club against promoting people who didn’t look like leaders to them.”

Promoting women creates a “virtuous cycle” that helps a company promote even more, he said.

“Talented women are more willing to join your company when they see that they will have real opportunities to advance,” he wrote. “These women are always there, but may be invisible to an all-male executive team.”

Having women at the top sets a standard for all hiring, according to Chief Scientific Officer Deepika de Silva.

“It’s very easy, I think, if you have a homogeneous executive level to have homogeneous hiring,” she said. “... Once you have a structure that’s biased in one direction or another, then you actually have to make a conscious effort [to change hiring practices].”

That may be difficult for some leaders, because people feel more comfortable around those who look and think like they do, de Silva said.

“Is it easier to just have all similar people with shared interests so you can all go golfing together? If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine,” she said. “But you should just know that you’re limiting your talent pool.”

‘We kind of break that myth’

As most technology and science companies struggle with increasing their diversity, part of BioFire’s success may be due to parity in the biology field more broadly.

Around half of the doctorates in life sciences were awarded to women in 2015, and half of medical school classes are female, according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit that advocates for advancing women into workplace leadership.

Still, women make up less than 25 percent of leadership teams in small and medium-sized biotech companies in Massachusetts and California, according to 2015 research by Lifestream, a recruiting company.

And parity within the organization isn’t perfect; there are only a handful of women in BioFire’s engineering departments.

Other companies have initiatives to attract and keep a diverse workforce, such as onsite daycare and formal mentorship and leadership development programs for women.

No such initiatives exist at BioFire, and beyond representation, it’s difficult to specify why the company’s gender balance is still better than most, de Silva said.

“We’ve obviously got something that works here at BioFire,” she said. “People are happy and we love what we do. It’s not so clear to define what that is so we don’t break it.”

Studies have demonstrated improved fiscal outcomes when more women are members of a company’s leadership team, and Rasmussen said that has been part of his impetus to encourage diversity.

Whatever it is that BioFire is doing to attract and keep diverse talent, de Silva, Kanack and Rachel Jones, the company’s chief commercial officer, agreed: Interviewing at least one woman, as the ParityPledge asks, won’t be enough for other companies to create meaningful change.

“Women don’t want to be plunked into these roles as token females,” de Silva said. “I’m speaking as a professional: I don’t want to be hired as a token woman. I want to be hired because someone thinks that my talents are useful for the job that needs to be done.”

De Silva said BioFire plans to continue its work to increase diversity, including hiring more minority candidates, and she hopes other companies will feel emboldened by its example.

“The story you hear is, ‘Oh, well for those types of talents, it’s all male-dominated,’” de Silva said. “...We have mathematicians and computer scientists and molecular biologists and all of these massively technical people who are all women. And I think we kind of break that myth.”