The professional world has evolved at exponential pace since I started my first role at BP and more women are pushing forward and moving up the ranks. I’d love to see even more women taking on leadership roles in life sciences. Having more diverse teams at the forefront of an industry responsible for global health and wellbeing can only be a good thing.

So, how can we encourage more women to take on leadership roles life sciences?

Start young – STEM focuses on school education to get girls interested in science – it transforms their curiosity for science into genuine enthusiasm. At junior levels in the pharma industry gender diversity is equal; it’s at the top of the pyramid where the balance swings dramatically away from women. A survey done by Biopharmadive in 2018 found that more than 90% of CEOs were men. Just 16 of the 194 executives included in this analysis were female.

We need positive action to encourage women to move up through the ranks. A lot of women work in academia and it would serve the industry very well to have more secondments between academia and industry, including healthcare, to understand things from different perspectives.

I’ve facilitated various programmes to help women in the industry such as PwC’s ‘shadow a female leader’ programme for female graduates and PhD students. They would join for three or four days to get some insights and get them interested in business aspects of life sciences. We also had internships for women re-entering the industry following an extended career break. This sort of approach gave them an opportunity to update their business knowledge and learn new corporate technologies. I have spoken to women who feel nervous about re-entering the workplace after maternity leave and I remember I was too, but the day I returned to work after a year away, everything came flooding back to me. Progression as a working mother proves challenging for many women as it requires self-promotion which is often deprioritised by working parents when juggling work life balance.  Self- confidence and the ability to self-promote is key.

What is needed to build a strong team

Gender and BAME diversity are easy to measure but real diversity is so much more than that. In one organisation we did open mind training to help people understand bias.  The key point was that we recognised the organisation needed to be fixed and not the minority.  This helped address improving visible diversity in the organisation and began to address invisible diversity such as different experiences and different ways of thinking.

As soon as you begin to do that, you realise the strength of team you can build because you have different perspectives and outlooks. We would always make sure we had a mixed team as we knew we would get better outcomes. For project work, where we were working with different teams, we would do psychometric assessments so we could understand each other better and structure the roles and ways of working to accommodate and suit team members’ preferences. That helped us to understand behaviours that made a strong team and recognise some of the gaps – awareness is key. At the start of every project be clear what you want to get out of the project, understand the skills you can offer and the constraints in terms of logistics and working styles.

What makes a good leader?

Understand your people – You can’t be a good leader without understanding people, so leaders need EQ alongside IQ, but you don’t necessarily need to be an extrovert to be a good leader. The key is to know who has what strengths and maximise them.

Stay curious – I think key traits of good leaders include passion and authenticity, curiosity – constantly asking why. Life sciences companies and technologies are fast-changing so having the capacity to learn is essential.

Be agile but clear about where the lines are – communication is key so issue regular updates and be up front about expected behaviours. Build authenticity and trust by being as open and honest as you can about what you do say.

Be solution orientated and hands on if needed – leadership teams must trust each other, avoid a blame culture and be solution orientated. Leaders must be willing to be hands on if needed – create an open environment where people are able to speak their mind without fear of retaliation. Fun is important, it is great to feel energised at the end of a meeting.

Be agile yet firm in your decision making – people often make the mistake that leadership is about coming up with your own thoughts and making decisions yourself.  But there are different routes to decision making depending on the team and situation.

Avoid making assumptions about what your team members are good at – asking them allows space to grow and develop in other areas.

Changing the role women play in the pharma industry

Over time some functions in pharma have become more prominent such as business development, patient engagement and government affairs as we are seeing more women coming through to C-suite roles using their experience in these areas. This is a positive sign, but I’d still like to see more women leading pharma companies or on the exec board or both, ensuring there is even representation across the board.

If we look around us today, we see incredibly inspiring leaders shining through. For those of you still on the journey, and for those who have reached your destination, have confidence, be yourself and stay curious.

Thank you for reading and feel free to contact us if you would like to talk more about leadership.

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