Why the key to success lies in leadership diversity
Before moving into healthcare, I began my career as a nuclear physicist in Romania. At the time, there were not many women working in this field. Since joining Merck as a research scientist 25 years ago, I have worked across a wide range of regional and global level roles in Germany, Romania, and the UK, including corporate business development, mergers & acquisitions, and commercial operations. Along such a varied route through the company, I have worked with a diverse set of leaders, all of whom have helped drive my success and influenced my style as a leader today.
In my view, a good leader will be authentic, self-aware, and always make sure they are listening, in order to help create an environment where all can flourish. If people do not feel they are valued or listened to, they quickly lose interest, and the potential of an organisation can suffer.
Through my move from a career in an industry where women were not represented or encouraged to thrive, to becoming a leader in a company that celebrates and promotes diversity, I have experienced first-hand the ways that a supportive workplace culture and diverse leadership that listen to their employees can influence performance and career progression.
Women in leadership – a driver of growth
I truly believe that having leaders from all walks of life and experiences is essential, not only to connect with the people you work with, but also because diversity in leadership can drive performance and growth by harnessing the rainbow of different perspectives, lived experiences, and leadership styles. Research has shown that companies with three or more women directors have been shown to significantly outperform those with less diverse boardrooms, according to an analysis of 12 years of data.
Diversity is particularly crucial in the healthcare and life sciences industries, where leaders, and all employees, must have a deeper understanding of the needs of multiple demographics within the population. Lived experience and personal understanding are crucial to providing the right messaging and support for patients, carers, and other key stakeholders. I have the privilege to lead Merck’s UK & ROI Healthcare business, where I see so many outstanding women at work, the company striving for gender parity in leadership positions by 2030.
I have seen more women in leadership positions at all levels across the healthcare industry, including CEOs. However, women are still underrepresented in STEM careers, particularly at leadership level, despite making up the majority of NHS staff. While the number of women in science careers has increased, they still make up just 24% of all people employed in STEM industries and occupy only 20% of leadership positions in the industry. We also know that the number of girls studying STEM subjects after age 16 has dropped; although more girls are choosing to study STEM subjects at school in the UK, only 35% go on to do a STEM degree at university.
Why is this? Working in STEM industries is a career choice that is an option for all, but perhaps for some women, it doesn’t feel that way. What are we missing, and are we really listening?
The barriers facing women today
There have been some insights into the barriers for women in STEM careers. Women often cite the gendered nature of workplace environments, gender stereotypes of women’s abilities, and assumptions about their responsibilities, as well as a lack of company policies, such as flexible working arrangements.
At various stages throughout their lives, women may need additional support from their employers. This could be young women entering STEM careers, those with additional unpaid care responsibilities and changes in their circumstances as a result, or those returning to work following a career break.
For example, many women become the primary carer – whether for their children, due to the need to provide childcare, or family members and loved ones such as a parent – and spend more time providing unpaid care than men. However, they often feel that their employers do not support their additional needs and may decide to leave their paid work.
For women wanting to start a family, there can be challenges with fertility policies. According to research by the Fertility Network, just 26% of people having IVF said their workplace had a relevant policy and half of those surveyed said they worried that treatment would affect their career, with one in five having to cut their hours or leave their job.
Many women are therefore leaving work at a time in their careers where they are experienced and just on the precipice of leadership roles. Many then have a crisis of confidence if and when they decide to return to work, or face gender bias in the recruitment process. The barriers and lack of employer support for women continue for women entering perimenopause or menopause; according to a CIPD poll in 2021, only 24% of employers have a menopause policy.
There are many different barriers for women to overcome across their career. Half of our workplace needs additional support to play on a level playing field with the others. So, what can we do to help?
Driving change for a more diverse future
Improving understanding is the first step to help address any problem. Companies need to listen to their staff, via surveys or speaking to their staff directly, to understand the perceived barriers. It starts by setting a precedent from the top, which is why it is incredibly important that leaders are open to listening, and that we have leadership teams that bring together different perspectives and lived experiences to help us better understand the needs of our people.
Then, we need to ensure our culture, policies, and initiatives are helping to meet these needs. Supportive environments, mentoring, leadership development systems, employee groups, flexible working, and support for women returning to work, such as fairer hiring practices, will have positive effects. These will help attract young women and graduates to apply for roles and will enable women to stay and progress to become leaders and role models for the next generation.
Thankfully, the younger generation of women today is entering the workplace with a better idea of what a healthy work-life balance looks like, which means that creating a supportive workplace is crucial to attract and retain future talent.
Supporting women does not mean we do not support men or those with other needs: we should create an inclusive environment for all. However, women have not always been afforded the same opportunities.
We should take this seriously, as it is a win-win situation when we create a diverse workforce. I urge other leaders to consider how they can support women, so they can enable their people and their business to thrive.