Addressing leadership barriers for women in tech and pharma

Contrary to Big Tech, historically the pharmaceutical industry has had a good reputation for being a female-positive industry. However, both industries share a common problem: failure to provide women with C-suite opportunities. In fact, women hold only 11% of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies. The biopharma industry is worse, with women only accounting for 8% of CEO roles.

The COVID-19 pandemic amplified these disparities, with data showing that increased childcare responsibilities have become a major barrier for women in the workplace. According to a recent survey of 450 tech professionals, when asked how their work life has been impacted by the pandemic, 57% of women reported they felt more burnt out, compared to just 36% of men. Additionally, 43% of women said they had taken on more responsibility at work throughout the pandemic, versus 33% of men. Unsurprisingly, mothers are three times more likely to decline leadership opportunities than women without children.

As a working mother myself, this data hits close to home. I’ve been fortunate to work for companies that have supported my upward career trajectory, but I am cognizant that not every woman can say that. 15 years ago, I had a close female friend with young children who was well-qualified for a promotion to a leadership position, but she turned it down because of her familial responsibilities. Instead, she coached a male colleague on her team for the position and he ended up moulding the position to fit to his own familial responsibilities, which she hadn’t realised she would even be able to do had she accepted the position herself. To this day, she regrets the missed opportunity.

Beyond family obligations, there are many systemic barriers for women in tech leadership spaces, including gaps in STEM degrees, compensation inequality, and workplace culture issues. What companies need to realise is that addressing the C-suite gender diversity gap requires a company-wide commitment to supporting women as they take on these roles. But from my experience as both a leader in the pharmaceutical tech space and as a mother, the support shouldn’t stop there. To succeed in leadership, women need support from above – from leadership – and around – from colleagues, spouses, or outside groups – as well as within – through self-advocacy.

Tackling systemic barriers begins with education and representation
Given that opportunity in the tech space begins with education, the disparity between degrees earned by men versus women in the STEM space is concerning, with women making up only about 19% of STEM graduates. It is critical that company leaders not only ensure diversity in their C-suite, but also establish university outreach and internship programs that connect young aspiring women with female mentors in the field. Without that representation, many young women will not view the tech industry as a place where they can succeed or harness upward mobility in their careers.

As my children get older and I have more capacity between work and home life, mentoring women in the pharmaceutical tech industry has become a significant goal for me. While female leaders should absolutely seek out ways to guide other women in their field, company leadership should also prioritise formalised mentorship programs that support female career progression.

Compassionate leadership and flexibility – the key to addressing retention issues and burnout
In addition to its struggles to attract women, the tech industry also faces serious retention issues for women who do enter the field. According to the Women in Tech Network, due to lack of role models and significant personal sacrifices they’ve had to make, women leave the tech industry at a 45% higher rate than men. Given that employee turnover incurs significant financial and cultural costs, it is in the best interest of companies in this space to listen to their female workforce and make accommodations.

In addition to mentorship, flexibility when it comes to maternity leave and family obligations is key to supporting the success of a working mother. From my experience as a leader, I know firsthand that an employee who goes above and beyond cannot perform when they are burnt out, and if you give employees the freedom to take care of all components of their lives, they will work even harder to demonstrate their commitment to their manager and to the organisation. This is important for companies to gain long term stability with their workforce.

A good manager knows and cares about the personal lives of their direct reports and works with them to address challenges that may be impacting their work. It is critical that all managers lead their teams with flexibility and compassion, however, it’s also critical that companies prioritise appointing women to positions of leadership to show commitment to gender diversity. Weaving diversity and inclusion into company values not only signals to lower-level women in the organisation that an upward career trajectory is possible for them, too, but also ensures that there are company leaders who understand the hurdles women in the industry face firsthand.

Familial support and self-advocacy
In a perfect world, progress would start with company leadership – but if it doesn’t, women themselves are their own greatest advocates. While companies committed to improving diversity should formalise mentorship programs, prioritise female representation in leadership and ensure managers lead with compassion and flexibility, it is ultimately up to women (and everyone for that matter!) to take charge of their own career goals and aspirations.

My advice to women in the tech field is this: if there are no existing mentorship programs within your company, seek out a mentor yourself. Ask a woman in leadership whom you admire out for coffee – chances are she will enjoy providing you with counsel for your career. Similarly, if you are a working mother or have other family commitments, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need to succeed, whether that’s from your company, your spouse, or from hired help. Taking everything on both at work and at home is an admirable pursuit, but it is not sustainable. Give yourself permission to ask for help and remember you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others.

Diversity makes for a better workplace
Greater diversity ultimately contributes to a more successful business, improving company culture, recruitment, retention, and collaboration. Data also indicates that companies with diverse executive teams perform better financially than companies lacking in diversity, and are also likely to be more innovative. As the tech industry continues to flourish, successful companies will take active steps to support women in their career goals, while providing them with female mentorship from above and upward mobility career opportunities.

About the author
Katie LaughlinKatie Laughlin is a business and offering development professional with 20 years of experience in pharma, medical device, and CRO organisations with a focus in clinical trials and commercial information management. She works with a consultative and strategic approach, focusing on driving growth through new business development and expansion of existing relationships into new business lines and offerings. Katie currently leads offering development at IQVIA for the Human Data Science Cloud.