Bahija Jallal: pharma’s Woman of the Year in a landmark 12 months

Views & Analysis

AstraZeneca’s Bahija Jallal was named the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) Woman of the Year for 2017 – in what turned out to be a watershed year for women’s rights. She joined HBA CEO Laurie Cooke at a meeting in London recently to reflect on how she made it to the top in pharma R&D – and how more can be done in pharma and biotech to promote gender equality.

The subject of gender equality and sexual harassment exploded into global consciousness in 2017, largely due to the revelations around film producer Harvey Weinstein, and the subsequent #MeToo movement – an outpouring of testimony from women who have suffered from similar sexual harassment and discrimination.

This outrage has been harnessed by the #TimesUp campaign, which has re-energised debate in society about how to not only eliminate sexual harassment, but also to bring about equality in the workplace. That’s because despite progress over the last decade, gender parity in pay and women in senior board positions is still a distant goal in many organisations in the US and Europe.

The pharma industry is typical of this problem. A recent study of the sector showed only 23% of the senior executives were women, up from 12% in 2006, but still very far from parity.

Meanwhile, the biotech industry in North American and Europe has an even bigger problem: a recent survey found there are 10 men for every woman in biotech boardrooms, and over 50% of all biotechs have exclusively male boards.

Efforts to address this problem aren’t new, though. The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) has been dedicated to furthering the advancement and impact of women in the business of healthcare since it was set up in American in 1977.

However there is no doubt that the HBA is enjoying a surge of new members signing up, especially in Europe, where it has just opened its first office in Brussels. The HBA has 35 chapters in the US and in Europe, serving 50,000 individuals and 120 corporate partners.

Bahija Jallal

A key part of the HBA’s annual calendar is the naming of a Woman of the Year, and in 2017 that honour was given to Bahija Jallal, President of MedImmune, the biologics division of AstraZeneca.

Jallal has had a distinguished career in drug research and development, and traces her love of science and drive to improve medicine back to her upbringing in Morocco. The pivotal event in her childhood was the loss of her father to a medical error in hospital when she was just nine years old.

However her mother was determined that her five daughters – and not just her two sons – would go on to higher education, regardless of cultural expectations at the time.

At a recent meeting in London, Jallal joined Laurie Cooke, CEO of the HBA, to talk about her 12 months as Woman of the Year, and offered some wisdom and insights for men, women and pharma and biotech organisations. She is well known for being the leader of MedImmune and a highly accomplished scientist – but otherwise doesn’t crave the spotlight.

Introducing her to the HBA audience, Laurie Cooke says some of this modesty stems from her upbringing in Morocco where there is a well-known proverb: 'the arrogant man has no friends'.

Bahija commented: “It’s been an amazing year, but I was very uncomfortable with the idea of being Woman of the Year at first.

"It’s not only that I am Moroccan but also that I’m a scientist – we don’t usually seek a lot of attention, and we’re most at home in the lab or in the office. My first reaction when my colleagues told me I was going to be Woman of The Year, was 'you’re in big trouble!'”

She says she was able to overcome her discomfort when she saw the impact her role and her story was having on other women.

“When you see the reactions of people and hear people share their stories, that’s what made it for me. If you can convince one person that 'if she did it, I can do it too', then it’s not about me, and I’m happy.”

Talking about what needs to change to bring about gender parity in boardrooms is difficult, as many issues feed into the problem. For instance, there remains a debate about just how much women do or do not need to change and adapt to a male-dominated environment in order to get to the top – or if it is the boardroom culture that needs to open up.

On this score, however, Bahija is clear: “There is nothing to be fixed about women. It’s about the environment.”

Nevertheless, she does emphasise that women need to believe in themselves, and find a way of combining a focus on the work – in her case, the science – with intuition and passion. Anyone – man or woman – who does this, she says, can be the ‘authentic’ leader to whom colleagues will always respond and respect.

“When you love what you do, they can see it. So follow your heart, and do what you are passionate about. People who have courage, and state what they know, will succeed. Then you don’t have to fake it, because everyone can see it.”


[caption id="attachment_39655" align="alignnone" width="622"] Members of the UK HBA leadership team with Bahija Jallal at the London meeting. L-R: Romina Oxborough, Laurie Cooke (HBA CEO), Lisa Adams, Bejal Joshi, Bahija Jallal, Sonali Quantius 


Emotional resilience

The HBA audience members were keen to put their own questions to Jallal. One such question was about how empathy could become more highly valued as a management and team-building skill.

She agreed that it isn’t among the most highly-valued traits, but stressed that emotions and emotional intelligence aren’t signs of weakness, and can be combined with strengths such as resilience.

“I don’t see how having emotions is going to stop you from being resilient, or that you have to make the choice between the two.

“Telling someone at work that they are ‘emotional’ is part of the whole labelling of people – and I call it out, every time. I had a fantastic boss – you could accuse him of a lot of things but you could never accuse him of not promoting women. However he did used to say 'Oh, you’re emotional'. Then one time I said: 'Don’t say that. That’s a label, and you can discriminate against women that way.' He apologised and said sorry for not realising that before.”

She says on another occasion she found herself arguing a point so passionately that she began to cry.

“I hate it when that happens, it feels like you are losing your grip. But on this occasion, I said: 'Don’t pay attention to the tears – that’s just physiological!' And it worked just fine, it diffused the atmosphere.

“My point is that you can’t change yourself to fit an image – you have to be yourself. Being an authentic leader is what people want to see. You are not a robot – you can be strong but also have your moments [of weakness]. There is no recipe for how much emotion you can have, or empathy.”

Perfection and perception

The emphasis in the HBA is an even-handed one: while directly challenging discrimination or unfair treatment that may take place from other people and institutions, it also encourages women to take positive steps for themselves.

Cooke says that women can sometimes hold themselves back by worrying about two ‘p’ words: perfection and promotion.

By striving for perfection, women sometimes feel they are not worthy of promotion because they haven’t perfected their readiness for the new role. Have confidence that you are being promoted for your potential as well as your proven accomplishments.

Jallal agreed with this and gave her own example: “We had a very accomplished woman who came for an interview. I happened to be interviewing her on my own in the first instance. She had a fantastic CV, but straightaway said: 'I know you must have more accomplished people than me, and smarter people than me, but I think I can convince you to hire me.'

“I said, OK, let’s step out of this interview for two minutes and talk woman to woman: don’t repeat what you just said to me in the later interviews. In fact don’t say that ever. You just told me there are other people smarter than you – why should I hire you then? You don’t have to present yourself that way.”

‘Sending the elevator back down’

Cooke says women who have made it to the top need to be role models for younger women, and 'send down the elevator' from the executive suite.

Jallal agrees, and says that being a mentor and looking out for career development for all of her team, male or female, is important.

While the subject of mandatory quotas to boost numbers of woman in senior positions is controversial, Jallal says they can be useful in getting the ball rolling. However she says MedImmune has now achieved gender parity and ethnic representation without any targets, but only in the last year or two.

She adds that studies are being conducted all the time into the benefits of more diverse workplaces all the time, and these should speak for themselves.

“We’re scientists. Let’s go back to the data. The more data we get, the more we’ll be able to convince people [of the merits of diversity] – and then it’s not just a question of them being nice to us.”

An exciting era in science

Bahija says this is the best time to be involved in science, with unprecedented breakthroughs and discoveries opening up improvement in patient care.

She says this a fantastic time to be in science and in serving patients, and it excites her and her team at MedImmune.

“All these new technologies – AI, cell and gene therapy, CRISPR  all this makes us feel like kids in a candy store, it is just a fantastic time to be in drug discovery and development.”

However these new approaches, and the arrival of potentially ‘disruptive innovation’ from tech players such as Google and Amazon, mean pharma scientists need to leave their comfort zone more than ever.

Nevertheless she adds: “Don’t listen to people who tell you that the arrival of these companies makes us [pharma and biotech companies] dinosaurs and so on. We are at the heart of that science and innovation.”

Finally, she complimented Cooke and the HBA on their work in furthering gender parity in the sector. “It’s a movement that you have helped to build, and one that’s not going to stop.”

Cooke replied: “I am not going to stop until we get to where we need to be, which is gender parity. Once we’re there, I’ll go on and do something else!”

The HBA is looking to expand further this year, and has also announced its Woman of the Year for 2018.

Dr Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, is executive vice president for strategic communications, global public policy and population health and chief patient officer, Merck & Co.

Dr Gerberding will be giving the keynote speech at the Woman of the Year event in New York on 3 May, which will also highlight Rising Stars and Luminaries in the sector.

Bahija Jallal’s story

Bahija Jallal is President, MedImmune and Executive Vice President, AstraZeneca. She is responsible for research, development and clinical activities in biologics, which accounts for nearly half of all of AstraZeneca’s current pipeline.

She says her career has been “anything but a straight line”, but it has always been guided by her love of scientific enquiry and discovery.

She says she has never written a personal development plan and never chased job titles – and claims that if she had, many chance opportunities and lessons would have been missed.

She says the death of her father due to a hospital medical error (he was admitted with a kidney stone) was the source of her determination to understand science and medicine.

Studying for her master’s degree in biology in Paris, Jallal then completed her doctorate in physiology at University of Pierre and Marie Curie.

She then took up a position as a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany. There Jallal worked in the lab of ex-Genentech scientist Axel Ullrich, where researchers focused on discovering molecules to target human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) protein in breast cancer.

This confirmed her interest in cancer research, and she took up a position as group leader at Sugen in the US (then a subsidiary of Pharmacia and later part of Pfizer), which developed the top-selling oncology treatment Sutent.

Her next post was at Chiron, where she was tasked with setting up a translational research unit, and where she says she learnt the lessons from two drug failures.

Jallal joined MedImmune as Vice-President, Translational Sciences in 2006 and was then appointed to her current role in 2013. Since then she has guided MedImmune’s R&D organisation through unprecedented expansion of its pipeline from 40 candidates to more than 120 molecules.

Under her leadership, the team set a goal to submit one new biologic each year (on average) from 2016, a milestone achieved one year early with the filing of psoriasis treatment Siliq (brodalumab).

Her key lessons in science in business are these: don’t be afraid to fail – “if we never fail, that means we’re not innovating enough; Dream Big – we have it in our hands to turn science fiction into science fact” and finally, "don’t lose sight of why you come to work every day – to make life better for patients."