Women in Pharma - European Medical Journal

Women in Pharma

8 Mins
General Healthcare

Written by Saskia Weaver-Pronk  Editorial Assistant, European Medical Journal


This year marks 100 years since women gained the right to vote in the UK; therefore, to celebrate this, and in honour of International Women’s Day, we are reflecting on and celebrating women’s progression while simultaneously acknowledging that the journey to gender parity is far from over, especially in the pharmaceutical industry.

An equal proportion of men and women (50.4% versus 49.6%) are known to begin careers in the pharma industry;1 however, a gender gap emerges at entry level and continues to expand further up the career ladder.

To investigate women’s progression and the existing gender gap in senior-level pharma positions, we recently reviewed the gender composition of executive management in the top 20 firms (as ranked on 2017 revenue). Results uncovered that only 23% of senior executives are female and, continuing this trend, only one of these companies has a female CEO. Nonetheless, on reflection we can appreciate the significant progression that has occurred over the last 12 years; for example, in 2006 just 12% of executive seats were occupied by women.2

Despite the clear progress, if anything stresses the continued lack of gender diversity in pharma at the high-level positions, it is the lack of executives featured on Fortune’s 2017 Most Powerful Women in Business list. The biopharma sector exhibits just 3 representatives out of 51, falling far behind the tech, financial services, and retail/consumer goods industries.3

Diversity: A Business Issue

Diversity is a business and strategic imperative, not a gender issue, and it may come as a surprise to some management that diversification of their executives is absolutely in their best interests. Research has revealed how transitioning from a single-gender office to an office evenly split between men and women is associated with a revenue gain of 41%.4

Further to increased economic return, research has also provided insights into how women in leadership positions can help mitigate risk; for instance, an increased number of female directors on a board has been shown to be associated with positively maintaining firm value during mergers and acquisitions.5 This evidence sheds light on how having a diverse senior management team is not just essential for non-discriminatory reasons, but has and will prove imperative to a firm’s financial success moving forward.

Recruiting and Retaining Female Employees

The lack of ability to retain female employees in executive positions is a significant problem contributing to the pharma industry’s gender gap. According to an EY survey on industry-wide gender parity, life science industry executives believe their organisations are not effective at retaining women in employment.6 Furthermore, despite 72% of executives believing that greater gender diversity on leadership teams would improve performance, 53% feel that they are currently underutilising the skills of women within their companies.

This demonstrates that while the industry executives appreciate what women bring to the table, this shared belief is not reflected in the talent acquisition and opportunities that enable greater gender diversity at an executive level.

Ergo, we must ask what should be done differently in order to attract and retain female executives.

We spoke to Laurie Cooke, CEO of The Healthcare Businesswoman’s Association (HBA) , who explained: “Companies should publicly advocate how gender parity benefits business success as well as build an inclusive culture free of unconscious bias.” She also commented on how pharma can adopt specific methods to improve the retention and attraction of female talent: “Companies can support an internal women’s network that can create a forum for women and men to network, learn, and contribute to the organisation’s business goals.”

What Can Be Done?

Promote diversity

When making career decisions, diversity is recognised as a crucial factor to women. A 2016 report highlighted how 82% of women identify an employer’s policy on diversity, equality, and workforce inclusion as important when deciding whether or not to work for an organisation.7 Not only this, but many women have stated they are willing to enforce their desire for a diverse corporate environment, with 46% saying they would reject an employment offer if the employer had an all-male board and all-male management, and if they were interviewed only by men.1

Diversity is a concept also important in respect to communication, decision-making, and problem solving in the workplace. Men and women have >100 distinct neurological differences and one of those relates to decision-making and, more specifically, decisions made under high pressure.

A common belief pertaining to decision-making in stressful situations is that women become emotional while men remain calm and clear-headed; if you largely believe this notion, no doubt you would automatically turn to men when making important decisions. However, neuroscientists are discovering how this theory is overwhelmingly false.

Two independent investigations both found that when experiencing stress, men make impulsive decisions based on rewards even if the highly rewarding outcome is unlikely to materialise. Women on the other hand, in the same stressful situation, tend to be averse to risk-taking, take time to assess possibilities, and display greater interest in smaller rewards that are more guaranteed and reliable.8,9

Considering this when attracting and retaining women, these gender differences must be recognised and appreciated. Women must be provided with a platform for expressing their thinking processes to nurture an environment based on inclusion. But also, these unique decision-making strengths exhibited by females provide an even greater reason for the equal incorporation of both genders at the top level. A balance between risk-taking and risk-alert behaviours would prove effective when high-stake decisions are being made.

Support women at every level

It is easy for companies to appear diversified through methods such as employing a senior level ‘token female’; however, for women to be equally represented within leadership roles, they must be represented equally at every level of the company’s employee structure.

A biased gender ratio at middle management is a good example of this; for instance, if there is a lack of women at middle management, the consequent talent pool feeding into executive roles and leadership contains a lack of females who possess the necessary attributes to progress.

Thus, by actively promoting women into all senior roles, not just a small minority, and including women equally throughout the talent pipeline, they will be more likely to be attracted to the company and retained long-term, thereby ensuring future leadership is gender diverse.

Women can also take control

There are personal day-to-day actions that women can participate in to help initiate change while driving forward their positions in the corporate world. Laurie explained: “Women should continually look for ways to partner with male colleagues to better understand different perspectives and the importance of us standing together for better business outcomes.” Communication is also key since good relationships with colleagues can secure sponsors that will speak on your behalf when career advancement opportunities are being discussed.

Leaders of Gender Parity

A report into future perspectives of pharma diversity1 claims that there is a significant misunderstanding between what companies consider is working towards improved diversity and the reality that women see happening; just 9% of women see their firm as fully inclusive versus 40% of the companies themselves.

Despite this, there is a plethora of role model companies that are putting commitment into action to achieve gender diversity, and they all share common goals: set targets and measure results, appreciate the connection between diversity and business performance, and commitment to the cause is demonstrated from the top.

When talking to Laurie, she explained: “These are companies who have demonstrated to an independent panel of judges concrete data that demonstrate the impact of their internal women’s initiatives.” Notable examples are:

  • The Bristol-Myers Squibb Network of Women, which has 3,500 members across 42 countries, enabling greater engagement among female leaders and allowing a higher proportion of women to enter executive and managerial roles.
  • Johnson & Johnson’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, which was launched in 1995, has and continues to demonstrate significant increases in the number of women on executive committees, management teams, and in other senior-level positions.

Joaquin Duato, Executive Vice President and Worldwide Chairman, Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, who has a remarkable track record of developing and promoting female leaders in the industry, explained: “Throughout my career, I have seen countless times how diversity of thought, ideas, and experience drives innovative thinking. Having strong dynamic female leaders is central to keeping our industry at the forefront of innovation. As senior leaders, we must do more than just be mentors, we need to actively sponsor and openly champion top female talent.  This proactive approach is crucial to balancing the scales and effectively accelerating diverse talent into senior leadership positions.”

  1. MassBio. Opening the Path to a Diverse Future. Available at: http://files.massbio.org/file/MassBio-Liftstream-Gender-Diversity-Report-2017-C849.PDF. Last accessed: 23 February 2018.
  2. PhamaExec. Back Page: Where are the Women? Available at: http://www.pharmexec.com/back-page-where-are-women. Last accessed: 6 March 2018.
  3. Fortune. Most Powerful Women. Available at: http://fortune.com/most-powerful-women/. Last accessed: 23 February 2018.
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Economics. Diversity, Social Goods Provision, and Performance in the Firm. Available at: http://economics.mit.edu/files/8851. Last accessed: 23 February 2018.
  5. EurekAlert! Women directors better at mergers and acquisitions. Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-11/uobc-wdb112213.php. Last accessed: 23 February 2018.
  6. EY. EY Women in Industry. Available at: http://www.ey.com/gl/en/issues/business-environment/ey-women-in-industry. Last accessed: 23 February 2018.
  7. PWC. Next Generation Diversity: Developing tomorrow’s female leaders. Available at: https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/women-at-pwc/internationalwomensday/assets/next-generation-diversity-publication.pdf. Last accessed: 27 February 2018.
  8. Mather M, Lighthall NR. Both risk and reward are processed differently in decisions made under stress. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2012;21(2):36-41.
  9. van der Bos R et al. Stress and decision-making in humans: Performance is related to cortisol reactivity, albeit differently in men and women. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009;34(10):1449-58.

Join our mailing list

To receive the EMJ updates straight to your inbox free of charge, please click the button below.
Join Now