7 Questions: Claudia Graeve on the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association

The president of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) Europe chapter discusses the challenges and opportunities for women in the industry.

Women today are taking senior and public roles in global corporations, such as Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook. What are the challenges for women in the health space – are they reaching the same heights?

Our industry has traditionally been governed by masculine leadership models. In addition, the predominant networks have greatly favoured the established circle, which has created barriers for women to break through, some of which are very subtle and still in place. Today, we have a larger variety of approaches in different countries, with some more actively promoting female access to leadership positions. Nevertheless, even when legislation is supportive of increased gender diversity, prejudice and traditional attitudes limit diversity. Our focus therefore needs to shift from clearing only the obvious obstacles to include the more subtle, attitudinal and cognitive biases that tend to see leadership traits as powerful, assertive, strong and brave and typically associate these with men.

Our sector does have examples of female leadership – Mylan and United Therapeutics Corporation are two biopharma companies with female CEOs. When searching for senior female post holders at the top 10 medical technology and device corporations, however, there is not a single woman to be found. Interestingly, female leadership can be found in smaller, entrepreneurial settings, indicating that there is interest in this sector, but it has not yet reached the same penetration across all types of corporation.

The HBA was founded in 1977. What do you see as the priorities for the organisation today?

Society has evolved since the ’70s, as has healthcare in general and in the different industry sectors in particular. Likewise, the role of the HBA is now more diverse, addressing multiple issues at once. In a nutshell, our focus is on the process of increasing diversity within all levels of organisational hierarchies. This means encouraging it where it exists and helping to initiate it where it does not. Our role is that of a partner in the dialogue between enterprises and women employees and entrepreneurs. Healthcare sectors are not opening up to women everywhere to the same extent and at the same pace, so facilitation and visibility are needed to help it flourish, and that’s where the HBA is grounded.

At HBA we firmly believe in empowering women as leaders in healthcare and provide connections between people and ideas to help women grow.

What differentiates the European chapter from those in the US?

The European chapter is the sole international chapter outside the US. It is interesting to see the differences in cultures and approaches between the two continents, and these are equally reflected in our association.

In Europe, our chapter is very diverse and multicultural – through our nine locations in six countries, we cover both northern and southern Europe and have further plans to expand into additional countries. As we do so, we need to consider the local needs and interests which are governed by the culture and what stage they are at in the lifecycle of the diversity agenda in order to develop an approach that is respectful and sets the new committee up for success.

We are best thought of as a ‘Chapter of Chapters’, tasked with balancing the different local realities in order to combine them into a European, and then a global, perspective. Volunteering with the Europe chapter can be an very culturally enriching experience therefore. It is an excellent training ground in truly living through diversity of opinions, approaches and mental frameworks, which is a challenging task at times, but a lively and growing community results from it.

Can you outline some of the key achievements of the organisation?

Since the association’s role comprises a number of different aspects, our achievements stem from a variety of areas too.

Our ‘Woman of the Year’ award has steadily grown in reputation and we are now happy to report that leadership teams from the largest players in the biopharma sector attend the event. This is not only an opportunity to celebrate this award, but also a number of additional awards, including the ‘Honourable Mentor’, the ‘STAR’ award and the laudation of nearly 100 Rising Stars and Luminaries.

Our global annual conference and our European annual summit provide opportunities for women to broaden their horizons and find new inspiration and ideas to take back into their daily life.

Last, but not least, we make a real difference to the professional careers of many of our members, which is at the heart of our mission and very dear to me. We have a number of very personal and local successes to share, such as the young professional who has so visibly increased in confidence through the support of our mentoring programme. It is a pleasure to see how she is taking up her professional challenges with much more poise. There is also the scientist aspiring to a career in marketing who found a new role thanks to her volunteering experience. Each and every one of these successes ultimately contributes to the fabric of support, network and growth that we provide.

The HBA ACE Award recognises companies’ efforts to strengthen the Advancement, Commitment and Engagement of women’s careers in the healthcare industry. Why is this important?

Allow me to turn this question the other way round: why shouldn’t it be important to provide half of the population with the same opportunities as the other half?

This should be obvious, but actually it is not. Women constitute about half of the population but still occupy only about one fifth of leadership positions; I believe there is room for improvement and that’s why it is important to recognize initiatives that cater to this need. This is where we as HBA can fulfil our role and help encourage diversity.

Macro-economically speaking, it is equally evident that investment in the training and education of the female part of the population brings about a well-deserved return.

What is the significance of the HBA Woman of the Year Award?

We always present the Woman of the Year award to a woman who has succeeded in her quest and who has demonstrated by her skills, her attitude, her openness and her competence, that she lives up to the values that the HBA encourages.

The award sends an important signal that we do have successful female leadership and makes it tangible. We put a face to it and take the discussion away from general remarks to concrete action and palpable results. Throughout our history our women of the year serve as role models, which is an important element of widening the circle of diversity. Let me clarify it with a metaphor: You need to be able to see the finish line in order to reach it.

How do you think healthcare will look in 2035?

Excellent question – I get this asked a lot in my day job!

Healthcare in 20 years from now needs to, and should, look very different to how it does today: treatment modalities will have changed; prevention should play a bigger role as our preventative capabilities are increasing drastically, with personalised, or stratified, medicine contributing to a significant shift of treatment modalities. Health information technology (HIT) will enable not only the efficiency gains that are much needed to sustain our healthcare system, but also provide an array of additional diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities that we are only now discovering. There is a lot of momentum in this HIT space that should be observed closely. Surgery is becoming more standardised with the use of robotic surgery. Hospitals can become mobile and even virtual. And if we start from a European perspective, imagine how this can affect the healthcare system in an emerging market. Within Europe, patient populations are becoming increasingly diverse and the healthcare teams will require additional skills to address this.

However, if we have not solved our problem of obesity and unhealthy eating habits, there will be an explosion of pathologies. This is a danger zone that we need to address collectively, first to sustain our healthcare systems and secondly to make wise and sustainable use of the resources of our planet.

About the interviewee:

Claudia Graeve started her career as a scientist and moved quickly into management consulting with Arthur D Little to broaden her horizon. She built her career in the healthcare industry where she held positions of increasing responsibility at Johnson & Johnson and Stryker before joining the executive committee of Anteis SA, a biotechnology firm. Today she serves as Vice President at Health Advances, a strategy management consulting firm dedicated exclusively to the healthcare sector.

Passionate about equal opportunities for women in business and science throughout her career and life, she volunteers as President 2015 for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) Europe chapter. Claudia holds a Master in Science, a PhD in Organic Chemistry and an MBA from Bocconi School of Business.

The 2015 HBA Europe Leadership Summit: Thriving in Change, Powering Performance takes place on 22 October in Basel, Switzerland. Click here for more details.

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