Fresh Thinking Needed to Champion Female Talent

If you think we have achieved gender parity in the workplace, think again



On Wednesday, International Women’s Day will shine a light on the crucial issue of gender-inclusivity in the workplace, under the banner of #BeBoldForChange. Such a focus is especially timely given recent research that showed how a majority of those in senior roles in top companies believe greater progress has been made towards gender parity than reality bears out.

About half of the 350 C-suite leaders from 51 countries (50% men, 50% women) across seven industries surveyed by EY said they believed their Boards had achieved gender parity (defined as 30–40% women) or would do so in the next 10 years. The truth, however, is a very different picture.

“Gender parity is 170 years away,” says the HBA’s President-elect, Kathrin Schoenborn-Sobolewski, also VP, Global Head Integrated Planning, Analytics and Partnering, at Merck KGaA. “This comes from the World Economic Forum 2015 report. Alarmingly, this has increased by 37 years since its 2014 report. Far from closing in on gender parity, business is, in fact, going backward.”

Schoenborn-Sobolewski, who has spent 25 years in the industry in various strategic and operational leadership positions in business development, commercial and R&D, is passionate about the impact of diversity and inclusion for women in business. “We need to look at this in a different way, adopt fresh thinking and continue to give a platform to this topic, allowing people to take leadership.”

She points to the “enormous efforts” to advance gender parity made by the HBA, including partnering with organizations and companies that have parallel missions and vision. “We’re running programs and event to develop women so that they are ready to take the most senior roles. We’re engaging with companies to discuss the impediments and solutions to achieve our mutual goals and we’re working with our corporate partners to uncover hidden bias, build gender partnership and laud those individuals and organizations that get it right. Because we have to get it right; we need diverse opinion for informed decision making, we need to pull down the artificial barriers that are impeding women’s progress and allow the best talent to rise. If we don’t, we all suffer.”

Laurie Cook, CEO of the HBA, outlined the problem clearly in a recent HBA article. “McKinsey’s annual ‘Women in the Workplace’ report on women in corporate America shows that women still fell behind men at every career stage in 2016,” she wrote. “Women start at a lower salary and are promoted at lower rates. Women are less likely to receive that first critical promotion to manager, so fewer end up on the path to leadership and women are less likely to be hired into more senior positions. Women also get less access to the people, input and opportunities that accelerate careers. At every step, the representation of women declines, and this does not appear to be the result of company-level attrition.”

The ‘marzipan ceiling’

The statistics are clear that highly-qualified women are failing to rise into leadership positions at the rate as their male colleagues. As a baseline, in the UK for example, women enter the white-collar workforce in far greater numbers than men – 57 females for every 43 males – yet, when moving from entry-level to middle management, and again from middle management to senior-level positions, men advance disproportionately.

In the upper echelons, women comprise almost a quarter (24%) of the ‘marzipan layer’, the talent-rich level below the ‘icing’ on the corporate cake – and here they stall. Women represent only 4%of CEOs and 6.6% of executive directors in the FTSE 100 and, by the end of the first quarter of 2017, there will be 27 women leading Fortune 500 companies, a percentage that has been holding steady at 4.8%.

In the pharmaceutical industry, the picture is even bleaker. Among the top 20 pharmaceutical companies (as ranked by sales), senior female executives represent just 17% of the management team, while three of the 20 have no women at the senior executive level. Prior to September 2016, and the announcement of Emma Walmsley as the new CEO of GSK, pharma had no female pharmaceutical CEOs in the top 20.

Strength in numbers

A key battleground for campaigners is an absence of proactive support from senior leaders. “Part of HBA’s work is to encourage female leaders to become sponsors and encourage more senior male leaders to do the same,” says Schoenborn-Sobolewski. “Sponsors can help open doors for potential female leaders to valuable assignments and connections and provide vital support by believing in them. Without active sponsorship from senior leaders, the majority of whom are male, women will not have the empowerment, exposure and experience they need for career growth.”

In her upcoming book, Reimagining Healthcare: Through a Gender Lens, Carolyn Buck-Luce makes the case for “gender smarts” – that empowering women on the inside of the industry can help it connect better with women on the outside. Promoting women into industry leadership roles, she argues, will accelerate the industry’s transition from product-centered to patient-centered models. Tapping women for their insights and greenlighting women’s ideas on how to reach and serve female consumers demands that companies have inclusive leaders.

To explore these issues, the HBA is hosting a Being Bold for Change virtual summit on International Women's Day that taps into the theme of this year’s campaign. “You could say that ‘being bold’ is directed both at women at an individual level and companies,” says Schoenborn-Sobolewski. “It’s a key element of moving the needle on gender diversity. Women need to speak up – if you want to be a leader, you need to have a voice; move out of your comfort zone.”

She adds: “Healthcare is a wonderful industry, with a lot of opportunity and flexibility, and you can drive your own career in an agile way if that’s what you want. I have encountered several situations in my own career where I was out of my comfort zone and it was painful at times, but that’s where you develop most and you gain from it. Drive your own career. Decide what you want, and, maybe more importantly, what you don’t want, and decide the pace at which you want it. Discover what you excel at and what triggers your energy and your burning passion. Look for change and find a good fit, and then you’ll excel.”


Join HBA on Monday, 6 March at noon ET, when HBA Woman of the Year 2012, Carolyn Buck-Luce, will lead a global conversation to kickoff the HBA's International Women's Day Healthcare Leaders Being Bold for Change virtual summit. To join the Tweetchats, use #HBAimpact.


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