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Closing the gender gap

Closing the gender gap

A look at the role of women in the pharma industry, the benefits they bring and what's stopping us taking over the world

According to a Scrip Intelligence report published last year, women account for only 11% of the board in pharma companies. This could be considered a positive given that it is nearly double the 6% cited for business as a whole (CMI 2013), but as our (arguably fairer) sex makes up an almost equal proportion of the population as a whole, surely something is going wrong?

Barri Blauvelt, writing in PM360 earlier this year, paints a stark picture of a problem that starts at ‘grass roots’ level: “We see that while over 70% of the pharmaceutical sales force are women, fewer than one-third are first-line sales managers. If that base is low, it will continue to be low right up the pyramid, with an ever dwindling pool of women as candidates for top leadership jobs.”

So what is to be done? Launched this year we have, ‘entrepreneur Barbie’ and, less controversially, three female Lego scientist toys. I, for one, won’t be rushing out to bring them home to my daughter, but I reluctantly suppose it’s a start. The example I set in business and the home and the number of women succeeding in senior or management positions in healthcare communications is a far better indicator of our potential and – I hope – a marker for future generations.

In 2007, the McKinsey group established a correlation between the presence of a ‘critical mass’ of at least three women in a corporation’s management team and its organisational and financial performance. What’s more, the 2013 Scrip report highlights that pharma companies with over 20 per cent female directors average $19.15bn in sales compared to companies with no women, which average just $2.74bn. On top of that, diversity on boards limits reputational and ruinous financial risks that often occur due to ‘Groupthink’ – a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. Groupthink brings about faulty decisions as group pressures lead to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment. A group is especially vulnerable when its members are similar in background and, most recently, the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) white paper for 2014 highlights how diversity regulates the effects of Groupthink. So what’s stopping us? Well, the WISE paper has some wise words on this.

It flags the ‘old boys’ network, gender assumptions and discriminatory practices as old news, but do they still exist? Jane Griffiths, the first female company group chairman of Janssen pharma unit in the EMEA region hasn’t experienced it: “But maybe I’m lucky…that’s not to say I haven’t seen it elsewhere.”

It is possible that the gender imbalance at the top is less about senior management being unattractive to women and more about gender favouritism in an industry led by men. Annalisa Jenkins, former global head of R&D at Merck Serono and current CEO of Dimension Therapeutics thinks: “No doubt. But in talking with other female physicians and scientists, I’ve learned that the career-family dilemma is definitely the most powerful reason.”

In fact, The Economist, December 2013, reported about 29% of women say they worry that having a career in science will keep them from having a family.

The reality is that the barriers to the board are multifactorial. In some respects we may be our own worst enemies. Going back to the WISE white paper, a lack of role models women can identify with, women’s possible discomfort with self-promotion, the fact women can be more risk averse and a perceived contradiction of being feminine and being successful are all partially to blame.

In many respects we all need to redefine ‘success’ and that includes the senior managers who have the potential to mentor and facilitate women to climb the career ladder. Not all of us hanker after family and in the WISE white paper, Eleanor Mills, editorial director of the Sunday Times frames it well. She says: “Successful women are the ones who do a really interesting, fun, powerful job, which earns them some money, but who can also be there to pick up their kids from the school gate or, if they don’t have children, have another interest.”

The paper goes on to propose the need for a culture of flexible working where results are more important than ‘presenteeism’ and flexible career paths, where employees can come off the career ladder for a period of time without losing credibility, are needed. It’s a win : win concept for men as well as women and business generally, but only a rare handful of companies are brave enough to embrace this new way of doing business in 2015.

Companies can also encourage qualities particular to women; in 2003 Alice Eagley, a professor of psychology and of management and organisations at Northwestern University undertook a meta-analysis of nine leadership behaviours observed in the corporate environment. She discovered that five were used more frequently by women than men: people development, expectation and reward, role model, inspiration and participative decision.

Are company environments changing to encourage more women to the top? Regarding flexible working, Janssen’s Jane Griffiths states: “There is a new generation of younger men coming through now who take much more responsibility in family duties than maybe they would have one or two generations ago.”

This could be a driver for change and if more companies encourage flexible working and women’s leadership styles, then more women will be attracted to and able to sustain jobs at the top tiers of the healthcare industry. Bring it on!

Ffyona Dawber is an award-winning managing director of med comms agency Synergy Vision. Email: