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A sledgehammer to smash life sciences’ gender glass ceiling

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A sledgehammer to smash life sciences’ gender glass ceiling

While International Women’s Day has long past, we must continue to acknowledge that women still have to fight for equality. We can still celebrate achievements, but we need to recognise that there is a long way to go before we achieve it.


The shatterproof ceiling

Most women reading this will know how difficult it can be to thrive in male dominated industries — but progress is being made, particularly in the pharma and life sciences sectors. Life sciences is leading the way, with women now making up 49% of the global life sciences workforce. Women also hold a slender majority (52%) of entry level positions at pharmaceutical companies, all be it this trend isn’t yet reflected across all STEM sectors.

Move into the boardroom, however, and the picture is very different. While every other recruit to a pharma company is female, in the boardroom you’ll find close to four men to every one woman sat at the top table (fewer than 30% of pharma executives are women). It’s clear that while access to life sciences and pharma is becoming more equitable, the seemingly shatterproof glass ceiling remains stubbornly intact.

It’s also worth noting that more women leave life sciences mid-career than men. While their temporary absence is perhaps understandable, the fact that they never come back isn’t. Life makes different demands on women than it does on men — so why do so many working practices still take no account of this? It speaks of practices that remain skewed to reflect the needs of men, rather than focusing on talent irrespective of gender.

Lost opportunities

Diversity and inclusion have been on everyone’s lips this last year, and rightly so. We should all join in the fight to build a more inclusive society where every person feels that they belong. This isn’t ‘touchy feely’ nonsense — it’s hard-headed business sense.

Sceptical? The cold, hard facts are that a company with a quarter of women operating at the most senior levels is 5% more profitable than those that have none. If just 25% senior female representation achieves a 5% boost, imagine the profitability potential of 50% and beyond. The reality is that having women at the top pays.

Inequality, however, has yet more implications – implications that are literally a matter of life and death. Well over 80%of women alive today live in low- and middle-income geographies. In these countries, gender is still a big indicator of health and women are harder hit by disease than men.

Right now, women in developing countries are getting left behindfor drug rollouts related to HIV and AIDS. Closer to home, in the US, the lack of involvement of women in clinical trials has made this situation worse. In 2019, the FDA didn’t approve a drug for HIV Prevention for cisgender women,as not enough were involved in the trials. It’s an omission that will cost lives.

We can’t continue down this path — but how can we stop? Simple, we involve women in the full spectrum of the pharma industry.

Shifting the needle

The gender imbalance in pharma and life sciences isn’t news to us. Fortunately, some companies are tackling it head on and changing the narrative.

Careers in the sciences are fulfilling, empowering and a great choice for any young woman. In the UK, the number of women accepted onto full-time STEM undergraduate courses rose by 50% in the past year, thanks to government initiatives to encourage women to enter STEM careers.

Alongside this, pharma companies are taking it upon themselves to level the playing field. Global pharmaceutical company, Lilly,for example, conducted a 2015 workforce analysis that highlighted a significant shortage of female leaders in the company. This was despite the fact that over half of their entry level employees and 47% of their global employees were women.

Immediately, Lilly set out to make a difference. They initiated training to help foster a ‘speak up’ culture, they fully engaged with their internal women’s group and implemented its suggestions. Essentially, Lilly treated equality as a primary business issue rather than a secondary consideration. In the following yearthe number of female leaders at Lilly rose by 3%, half of its pharma presidents were women, and women accounted for 61% of promotions to senior director and above. Direct action gets results.

Normal — not extraordinary

In 1970 5,000 students were asked to draw a data scientist and just a tiny 0.06% sketched a woman. That’s less than a classroom of children. Over the next 48 years this had risen to 24%. Progress, but nowhere near enough. US civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman is quoted as saying, “you can’t be what you can’t see”, and she is spot on. More visible women doing amazing things can inspire others looking to take the next career step.

Women in senior positions shouldn’t be seen as exceptional outliers, or as something extraordinary, but as the norm. Achieving this means sticking together and shouting about our successes. If you can’t be what you can’t see, let’s make sure every woman sees our success. This means connecting with other women to help build their careers, creating women’s groups within our businesses and empowering women within our organisations to have the career they deserve.

Industry action — it’s hammer time

This problem wasn’t created by women, and it shouldn’t be our burden alone to fix it. Pharma companies can do more to empower women at the highest level.

As with Lilly, there is no need to be subtle about smashing the glass ceiling — it’s time to break out the sledgehammers. One such sledgehammer is a Board Readiness Programme: direct, efficient and effective measures that make sure women aren’t passed over for senior promotions. They help combat imposter syndrome and uplift and empower women who we already know are more than capable of leading; they just might need that extra push.

There are so many talented and ambitious women who miss promotions because they don’t have board experience. But how can companies expect to change the status quo if they’re recruiting from the same pool of people? If companies only hire people with existing board experience, they’re recycling the same faces (and gender) over and over again. Let’s look at skillsets, not CVs, and let’s focus on the women who are best set for the position, not just the men who have been there before.

As in all aspects of life, tired assumptions still get in the way. The same old attitudes enforce the same old standards. We all know women who have made changes to their career because of the assumption that they must choose between a baby and a job. Some women do choose this, but it’s a decision that shouldn’t be made for us. Being a mother and being a professional are not mutually exclusive. Some women choose one, some women choose both. All of these options should be celebrated and encouraged for how amazing they are. But right now they’re not. It’s still clear that women are less comfortable moving jobs because they’re afraid they won’t get the same maternity benefits or flexible allowances with a new position.

No woman should be forced to choose between children or career — because both are fulfilling, uplifting and completely compatible options. Companies should do more to accommodate this compatibility. This means a more flexible approach which allows women to choose the work environments that match what they need.

We have a lot to do to smash the glass ceiling. Let’s start to look beyond the great work to get women into lower-level positions, and let’s start getting us into board rooms. It’s really not rocket science: we know that companies can make a difference right now, with board readiness programmes, evaluating hiring practices and consultations with women in the workplace.

I know from personal experience that strong women inspire strong women. Let’s continue to do this, to push for change and finally smash the glass ceiling.