Shaping the path to gender parity in pharma leadership
Recent annual events, such as International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, are opportunities to shine a light on female achievement, but the journey to true equality needs a daily focus. A quick glance on most companies’ corporate social media channels in March showed posts that were full of positive affirmations and welcome stories of female solidarity. While these are milestones for celebration, it’s also justified to reflect on what still needs to be done to deliver on the promise of gender inclusion and to elevate female leadership in business, particularly within the life sciences industry.
More women in leadership roles
It's important to acknowledge the progress that has already been made to improve female representation at C-suite and executive levels, even if the pace of change has been arguably sluggish. In the last ten years, the proportion of women around the globe taking on leadership positions has risen from 21% to 32%. Research suggests that the greater flexibility in working practices brought about by the COVID-19 global pandemic, along with conscious efforts to improve and expand inclusion and diversity, have been major factors in driving this change. If current trends continue, women are set to make up over a third of senior management roles by 2025, or potentially sooner.1
While these signs are encouraging, it will likely remain the case that most senior management roles will still be held by men by the end of this decade. If we drill down into the life sciences industry, it’s clear that gender equality and parity in company leadership is still some way off. Of Evaluate Vantage’s 2023 top ten expected biggest-selling pharma companies,1 only GSK is headed by a woman.
According to the World Economic Forum, women make up under 30% of executive directors at the top pharma firms - despite similar numbers of men and women entering the workforce with advanced degrees in life sciences and medicine.2 Other research suggests that half as many start-ups in the biotech and high technology space are female-owned, compared to all other sectors.3
Gender diversity and performance
Gender disparities in our industry matter, as female leaders offer so much more than just different perspectives around the boardroom table. Studies have shown that women can increase the financial performance of their organisations, improve access to diversity and inclusion, inspire and expand the talent pipeline, and promote wellbeing and motivation within their teams. A 2020 McKinsey & Co study found that companies with executive teams comprising of more than 30% women were significantly more likely to outperform those with executive teams with 10-30% women, who were themselves more likely to outperform those with fewer or no women executives at all. These findings suggest a considerable performance differential – 48% – between the most and least gender-diverse companies.4
From my own personal experience, I find it’s still relatively rare to see women make the shift from a career in science into commercial leadership roles in life sciences businesses, despite the incredible value a scientific background can bring. In the field of science, we are encouraged to be inquisitive, curious, and diligent – qualities that help support the creation of growth opportunities underpinned with scrutiny and rigour. Similarly, the sense of teamwork and healthy competition often found in science also has value in business, encouraging companies to work collaboratively, drive continuous improvement, and be incentivised to succeed together.
So, what is needed to encourage more female leadership in our industry? How can we ensure a qualified and sustainable talent pipeline who then have access to critical decision-making roles that guide strategy and commercial direction? From small start-ups to large, complex organisations, it’s critical to work towards gender equity across recruitment, retention, and renumeration, along with ensuring flexibility in working practices for those with caregiver demands. Visibility of strong female leaders in posts, along with clear pathways to leadership roles, are also needed. This type of progress needs to be routine, not the exception to the rule.
The value of kindness and compassion
Strength and compassion are not antitheses of each other; this is a guiding force in both my personal and professional ethos. A high-profile female leader that inspired me is Jacinda Arden, former Prime Minister of New Zealand. Polls conducted during her tenure placed her as the most popular leader in the country’s 100-year history, considered in part down to her empathy and authenticity. But popularity should not be the only measure of success in leadership – Arden also received widespread praise for her swift decision-making, transparency, and clear, consistent communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arden can be said to push against traditional leadership styles by not solely valuing typically ‘masculine’ traits like strength and assertiveness, but also showing that qualities like kindness and compassion are equally as important and valuable. Arden’s final poignant speech to the New Zealand Parliament echoed these sentiments and provided a call to action for future generations, declaring, “You can be anxious, sensitive, kind, and wear your heart on your sleeve […] you can be all of these things and not only can you be here, you can lead just like me.”
Celebrating achievements on equality issues on International Women’s Day is not enough when the pace of change on gender parity is still so slow. As EMEA President at Thermo Fisher Scientific, I feel a personal responsibility to actively play my part in positively shaping the future of our organisation by empowering more women to achieve executive positions. It’s a source of deep pride that I represent commercial and scientific teams from across the EMEA region, so it’s imperative that I offer them a strong voice on the power of diversity. In 2021, 38% of our leadership roles were held by women, so we’re above average, but we can, and will, go further to improve our representation.5
To conclude, female leaders must not be figureheads, there to be a token number. Rather, we should have agency and be able to take calculated risks to shift cultural practices and create working environments that allow everyone to thrive, regardless of their gender. We should be able to nurture and celebrate, along with recognising the daily challenges. While the ‘path to parity’ still isn’t as firm or defined as it could be, I’m hopeful that the life sciences industry can make strides to help more female executives realise their potential and set a positive example for other business sectors.
- Evaluate Vantage. The biggest-selling pharma companies of 2023. Available at: https://www.evaluate.com/vantage/articles/analysis/spotlight/biggest-selling-pharma-companies-2023
- WEF. Pharma Healthcare curing gender bias. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/pharma-healthcare-curing-gender-bias/
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2012. From Science to Business: Preparing Female Scientists and Engineers for Successful Transitions into Entrepreneurship: Summary of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Available at: https://doi.org/10.17226/13392
- McKinsey & Company. Diversity wins. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/diversity
- Thermo Fisher CSR Report 2021. Available at: https://corporate.thermofisher.com/content/dam/tfcorpsite/documents/corporate-social-responsibility/2021_CSR%20Report%20Thermo%20Fisher%20Scientific.pdf