The Triangle CRO Industry: Where Women Rule

By David Ranii
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).

At a time when the technology industry is under fire for employing too few women, an industry that ranks among the Triangle’s largest employers could boast — if it chose to — that its workforce skews heavily female.

Some of the largest contract research organizations, or CROs, report that 60 percent or more of their workers are women and that 50 percent or more of their managers are female as well. CROs help pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies test experimental drugs and analyze the results.

Take, for example, Durham-based Quintiles, which has more than 32,000 employees worldwide and is the world’s largest CRO.

Three out of five of its employees worldwide are women; and, if you break out its U.S. workforce, the percentage of women is even higher: 66 percent. Senior management, defined as associate directors and higher on the organizational chart, is 50.5 percent female companywide and 50.1 percent female in the U.S.

“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the (workforce across the CRO industry) mirrors that of Quintiles,” said Kevin Olson, CEO of Industry Standard Research, a pharmaceutical market research and consulting firm based in Cary.

The Triangle is the epicenter of the CRO industry. Three of the world’s largest CROs are headquartered here: Quintiles, PRA Health Sciences and INC Research.

Although there doesn’t appear to be an industrywide breakdown of CRO employees by gender, Quintiles is not an outlier.

Some CROs boast an even greater female presence in their employee ranks — and in their executive suites — than Quintiles. About one-fourth of Quintiles’ revenue comes from businesses that fall outside the CRO umbrella.

Raleigh-based PRA, which has 10,300 employees worldwide, reports that 72 percent of its workers are women, and 51 percent of managers, defined as directors and above, are female. Wilmington-based PPD, which has 1,600 employees in the Triangle and more than 13,000 globally, has a workforce that’s 70 percent female; 55 percent of its managers, defined as associate director and above, are women.

On a smaller scale, almost 70 percent of the approximately 375 employees at Rho in Chapel Hill are women, said co-CEO Laura Helms Reece. Moreover, five of Rho’s top nine executives are female.

Reece sees the preponderance of women at Rho as a plus.

“Part of what makes Rho so effective is the fact that the project teams like each other and they work together well — and that is based on relationships,” she said. “I think the fact that we have so many women — it’s not to say men don’t build relationships — the fact that we have so many women means those relationships are built and strengthened really effectively.”

Young industry
The CRO industry contrasts starkly with the technology sector, which has come under withering criticism for employing too few women — as well as too few minorities. Women make up less than one-third of the workforces at major technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google.

Overall, women constitute 47 percent of the nation’s employed workers, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But their participation in different occupations and industries varies widely.

Just 20 percent of software developers and one-third of lawyers are women. At the other end of the spectrum, 62 percent of accountants and auditors and 81 percent of elementary and middle-school teachers are female.

The CRO industry is relatively young, tracing its roots to the 1980s, when drug companies started to get serious about outsourcing clinical trial work. Throughout the CRO industry’s short history, women have been a major force.

The average annual salary paid worldwide by companies that are members of the Association of Clinical Research Organizations, which accounts for at least two-thirds of the industry, is $56,700, according to association spokesman John J. Lewis.

Lynn Van Dermark, immediate past chair of the Association of Clinical Research Professionals as well as co-founder and CEO of a mid-sized CRO based in Texas, said that, especially in the early days, the industry recruited employees from a profession that historically was dominated by women — nursing.

Workers in other health-related professions where women abound — such as respiratory therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists — also gravitated to the field, said Terri Hinkley, ACRP’s deputy executive director.

The prevalence of women involved in clinical research work isn’t limited to CROs.

ACRP’s membership encompasses nearly 14,000 members and cuts across industries to include clinical research workers employed by drug companies, hospitals and physicians’ offices as well as CROs. Eighty-one percent of the organization’s members are women.

“It has always amazed me there were so many women — and women were in upper-level positions” in the CRO industry, said Mary Helms, who co-founded Rho in 1984 along with her husband, Ronald Helms. Today Mary Helms, 73, is the semi-retired president of the company co-led by her daughter, Reece, and her son, Russell Helms.

Flexible scheduling
Mary Helms isn’t sure why women flocked to the industry from the outset. But, she speculated, “maybe there was not so much of a glass ceiling … because it was a younger industry.”

Certainly the rapid ascent of the CRO industry — which didn’t even exist until the 1980s yet accounted for an estimated $22 billion in revenue in 2013 — has created a wealth of career opportunities for women and men alike.

“The CROs have continued to add services,” said Paula Brown Stafford, president of product development at Quintiles. “As you add services, you create opportunities for people to move to other things.”

“I call it zig-zagging,” Stafford added. “They can move from clinical monitoring to safety management. They might move from safety management to project coordination.”

Technological advances have made some jobs in the CRO industry more appealing to working parents — both moms and dads, said Bill Gluck, program director of the clinical trials research associate program at Durham Technical Community College. About 80 percent of the 120 students enrolled in Durham Tech’s program are women.

Jobs that once required traveling to medical offices and hospitals where physicians are engaged in clinical trials, such as site monitoring and data management, can be done remotely thanks to electronic data capture. And that, in turn, lends itself to flexible scheduling.

“In a lot of cases, people will set up their schedules around a school schedule,” with working moms and dads dropping their children off at school in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon, Gluck said.

Nurturing factor
The fact that clinical trials are conducted globally also lends itself to working nontraditional hours.

“Very early in the morning, you can be working with sites in Europe,” Gluck said. “Late in the evening you may be able to work with sites in, say, Asia, where they are just starting their day.”

Working for a CRO also appeals to the nurturing nature of women, said Tami Klerr, executive vice president of business development at PRA.

“Every day we come to work, we know that anything we do is one step closer to getting a drug approved that is either going to improve someone’s life or save someone’s life,” Klerr said. “It’s a meaningful industry, and that’s important to women.”

Still, despite the prevalence of women throughout the CRO industry, all of the CEOs at the industry’s eight largest companies are men. In addition, the positions at the top of the organizational charts are dominated by men at those companies.

For example, of the 16 executives that Quintiles touts as its leadership on its website, 13 are men. Of the top 100 Quintiles executives, nearly 30 percent are women.

“The bigger companies, they are like other industries,” Rho’s Mary Helms said of the lack of female CEOs at the industry’s biggest companies. “And it’s a disappointment, yes.”

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