Is the pharma gender gap starting to close?

Views & Analysis

When Emma Walmsley took the reins of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in 2016, becoming the first woman to head up a major pharmaceutical company, it was headline news.

But has her appointment made a difference at the view from the top two years on?

It’s an international conversation that transcends industry boundaries: the inequitable gender balance at the top of the world’s biggest corporations.

While the pharmaceutical industry is no exception in the main part, there are signs that things may be starting to change.

According to Women Count 2018, a report from advocates for diversity in business, The Pipeline, women make up 10 per cent of executive directors of the pharmaceutical companies within FTSE 350.  That’s compared to the cross-industry average of eight per cent.

Green shoots of change?

Across the FTSE 350, just 16 per cent of executive committee roles and five per cent of executive committee profit and loss positions are held by females.

Among the pharma companies in the 350, however, the figures are slightly better: women hold 25 per cent of executive committee roles and eight per cent of executive committee P&L positions.

“Pharma has a higher representation of women on their executive committees than the FTSE 350 average, and their position has increased slightly since last year.

“Perhaps we are already seeing the positive impact of GSK having a female CEO,” said the authors, pointing to the appointment of Walmsley in 2016.

“Even so, this sector’s representation of women in P&L roles has to increase if these green shoots are going to turn into a positive, sustainable trend.”

Variable equality

While these figures appear encouraging, the number of women in senior leadership roles in pharma varys considerably across the sector.

Seb Burchell, of Assured Pharmacy, has been digging into the data and found that of the 133 people on executive leadership teams across the world’s top ten pharma companies, just 34, or 22 per cent, are women.

GSK remains the only one among them with a woman in the top job, and while there are 116 directors on the ten boards of directors, just 34, or 29 per cent, are female.

Seb said that while the size of the gender gap varied from company to company, not one leadership team consisted of an equal number of men and women.

“Gender diversity in leadership roles at the workplace is arguably the most prominent issue facing employment currently,” he said, adding that it was a “well-known fact that a plethora of industries have an unequal balance of men and women in leadership positions”.

The top ten companies by earnings in 2017 were included in the analysis. These were Johnson and Johnson, Roche, Pfizer, Novartis, Sanofi, GSK, Merck, AbbVie, Bayer and Abbott.

Women make up 40 per cent of executive committee members at both Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer, but at the other end of the scale 92 per cent of Bayer’s executive team is male.

These figures are reflected in the general leadership workforce — Johnson and Johnson had the highest rates of gender diversity, with 35 per cent of leadership positions held by women. At Bayer, however, that figure was just six per cent.

While women currently make up almost 50 per cent of the total pharmaceutical industry workforce, there is a “long way to go” before we see the leadership gender gap begin to close, said Seb.

He commented, “We were interested in having a look at the gender diversity of leadership positions within the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

“The results clearly showed that there's a need for some companies to make a greater effort to improve the diversity in their leadership positions.”

Changing from the top

According to the team behind Women Count 2018, women “promote women and make change happen”.

This is suggested in Assured Pharmacy’s analysis which shows that GSK has six men and five women on its board of directors and females make up 33 per cent of employees in leadership roles.

Women Count authors said that companies “take their lead from the boss”, meaning organisations wanting to deliver true gender diversity had to start at the top.

“Well-meaning words are fine, but it is actions and behaviours that count.

“CEOs must step up and treat gender diversity in the same way as other key business issues and commit to targets, create deadlines, empower people to deliver, and hold the organisation and individuals to account for their performance,” recommended the report.

Representing patient diversity

What’s more, the report also highlighted a correlation between profitability and having more women in senior roles.

FTSE 350 companies with no women on their executive committee only achieve an average 8.9 per cent net profit margin. Where there are at least 25 per cent of women on executive committees, average net profit margins increase by five per cent to 13.9 per cent.

It added that UK plc had the opportunity to collect £13 billion “gender dividend” if all FTSE 350 companies performed at the same level as those with women on their executive committees.

And this may be particularly pertinent in the health sector, where profitability relies on the ability to understand the patient voice.

Because if pharma companies are to truly understand and meet the needs of a diverse patient population, it can be argued that executive and board members need to be truly representative.