Roundtable: How can pharma close the gender health gap? - European Medical Journal

Roundtable: How can pharma close the gender health gap?

6 Mins
It’s hard to deny that the historical under-representation of women in the pharmaceutical industry may have played a role in the gender health gap we see today. In this roundtable, we look at whether bids to improve gender parity could be the ticket to change
Interview by: Isabel O’Brien


Robyn Widenmaier is the Global Medical Strategy Lead at GSK. She boasts nearly two decades of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, having worked across drug safety, clinical development and medical affairs. In her role, she is dedicated to inspiring and motivating cross-functional teams toward impactful outcomes for patients. An avid endurance athlete, she finds solace in running, cycling and competing in triathlons. Outside work and athletics, Robyn treasures moments with her family, hiking, kayaking and unwinding at their off-grid cabin.

Tabetha Sundin is Head of Diagnostics, Global Medical Operating Business Unit at AstraZeneca. She has a PhD in biomedical sciences and was a scientific director at Sentara Healthcare before joining the industry. With experience in test insourcing and leading multidisciplinary committees, Tabetha is passionate about driving demand for biomarkers and ensuring access to testing for oncology patients. She also spearheads gender equality projects and, when not at work, enjoys spending time with her husband and five children.

When did you first become aware of the gender health gap?

Robyn: I’ve been working in the industry for a while, so it has been present for me for some time. In the broader context of gender and health, we know that women tend to live longer on average, but they spend about 25% more of their lives in poorer health compared to men. There also tends to be less investment in women’s specific health issues and understanding of how certain diseases can affect women differently. Traditionally, for example, phase 1 trials were called first-in-man trials. And while that terminology has evolved and adapted to be more inclusive, so first-in-human trials, women are still under-represented in those early phase trials, which has implications for how new medicines are developed in the future.

Historically, there’s been this assumption that men and women aren’t really all that different apart from their height and their weight and their reproductive organs. Women were just seen as smaller men, but we know now that the biology is very different. Women experience diseases differently, and may show different symptoms for the same diseases. On top of this, the prevalence, the course and the severity of many common diseases, and how women metabolise drugs, can be different. Varying demographics, including gender identity, ethnicity, social class, sexuality and more, can have an impact. So we know a lot more now; and we should – and we are – doing things differently to address that.

Tabetha: I wasn’t really aware of the gender health gap early on in my career because my role at AstraZeneca is my first experience in the pharmaceutical industry, but I’ve seen gender disparities in the other environments I’ve worked in. When I was working in a hospital, for example, I used to speak at speakers’ bureaus for different pharma companies about biomarker testing, and I was often the only woman in the room. It was definitely a shocking experience. Walking into a room in 2020 and being the only woman. But that’s not the case here at AstraZeneca. The leadership team that I sit on is now 75% female, and at the the most senior levels, we have 50% gender parity.

But I’m still an advocate in this area, and I’m passionate about how we as an industry can help close the gap. Half of our population has this barrier to good health and by having conversations about this discrepancy, we can raise awareness and make a difference. At AstraZeneca, we start from a much higher place on this issue. We have the privilege, but also the responsibility, to ensure that we make progress in closing the gap.

Traditionally, phase 1 trials were called first-in-man trials

To what extent will getting more women in senior leadership roles ‘fix’ the gap?

Robyn: I think closing the gender gap in health is going to take a lot of effort and change in a lot of parts of the healthcare system. But as R&D organisations in the industry, we have a role to play. We know that having diverse teams, including diverse leadership teams, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, expertise and experience, improves performance, decision-making and innovation. And many companies, including GSK, have targets to ensure there is diversity in teams and leadership roles. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we know it will ultimately help the patients.

For example, according to the World Economic Forum, women make up less than 30% of senior management in the pharmaceutical industry, despite the fact that there’s now a relatively equal number of women and men entering the workforce with degrees in life sciences and medicine. It’s also important to point out that the path to leadership doesn’t look the same for all women, so any effort for change needs to consider additional variables such as race, socioeconomic status and access to education too.

Our ambition at GSK was to have women holding at least 45% of VP and above roles globally by the end of 2025. And actually we achieved this by the end of 2023. So that’s something we’re very proud of, but it’s important for all parts of the healthcare system to achieve these goals, and to hold themselves accountable to any potential unconscious leadership biases they may be holding, whether that be in gender, or for any other protected characteristics.

Tabetha: I’m a big believer in balance and diversity of thought. That means both women and men at the table. We need women and we need allies. Having said that, one thing that has helped internally at AstraZeneca is having women in senior positions who are vocal in their support of other women in senior positions. It’s having leaders who make sure that our steering committees are balanced and that when we have an external summit, that’s balanced. If you take a summit agenda as an example, you need people to say ‘think about gender parity when you look at the experts for this, because there are as many female experts in this field as there are male experts’. That will reinforce behaviour. People will feel empowered to [push for gender parity] if they see a senior leader doing it.

Women make up less than 30% of senior management in the pharmaceutical industry

What would be your advice to more junior women who want to become leaders one day and make a difference on this issue?

Robyn: First of all, I would say go for it, we should all believe in ourselves and become the leaders we want to be. I mentor and coach several colleagues, both men and women. And I still see differences in how women look at these opportunities. They can self-sabotage or self-select for different reasons. It is still true that women tend to only apply for roles where they meet the vast majority of the listed requirements, which is not typically the case when men evaluate future opportunities, so as leaders, it’s important that we have the culture and infrastructure in place to recognise this and address it where possible.

Unfortunately, inherent biases within the workplace still exist, so organisations need to be aware of that and make sure that there is support with equity across different parts of the workforce, including women and minorities, so that they have equal opportunities to develop and reach those levels. There are also external groups, for women in pharma for example, where colleagues can find resources and get involved to get that inspiration and support.

Tabetha: It can be really tough. I was at an external panel recently and we were talking to women about how to find their voice, how to advocate for themselves, and the importance of allyship came up. We can’t ignore the other 50% of the gender when it comes to change. If you have a good ally, they can speak up for you. However, it’s also important to take it upon yourself to talk to the most senior women about how best to do this [for yourself]. They might say ‘I’m the only woman in the room and I don’t feel intimidated to speak my mind, but I did feel intimidated 20 years ago’. That can empower women who are walking into rooms today.

Also it’s important to find your village, find your people, then you have this group that you can move and make changes with. I’m a big believer in spending your energy where you can have the most impact, and I recommend using the 80/20 rule of 20% effort to get 80% movement on any given issue.

If you have a good ally, they can speak up for you

How can more established leaders support the next generation of female leaders to become changemakers?

Robyn: Mentor, sponsor and support the next generation of female leaders. Understand that as a leader part of your job is to nurture future talent. We won’t have diversity in leadership if we don’t have a diverse workforce, and we won’t have a diverse workforce if we don’t ensure that we’re reaching and inspiring diverse applicant pools. At GSK, we are working to improve access to STEM education among under-represented communities. These efforts extend from community programmes and secondary education to working with universities and mentoring young people starting their careers.

Making sure that we’re thinking through this process, and reflecting on any unconscious bias as we go through the hiring process, is key. In practice, this needs to be applied to all those really powerful everyday moments – for example in meetings. Make sure you’re asking for everyone’s input if there are people who tend not to come forward as eagerly. Make sure you’re asking for those different opinions so that we can make the right decision, not just the most popular or focusing on the input of the most vocal person.

Tabetha: For me, the more junior females on my team that see I’m vulnerable – and I’m very purposeful in sharing these things as we all go through them – the better. If everybody’s faking it until they make it, then nobody gets to see beneath [the façade]. If my team say ‘oh your so confident on stage’, I say ‘my knees were shaking, I had to wear a dress longer than my knees’. The more senior you get the more visible your learning curve is and the more uncomfortable you will feel being open about that. But at some point, you have to get used to that feeling. It’s important in leadership, especially for female leaders, to be very transparent. Once you have transparency that embeds a speak up culture.

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