Inspiring Women

Women and men need to work together to create a gender-inclusive working world



If there’s one takeaway from International Women’s Day earlier this month, it’s that creating a more gender-inclusive world will take sustained effort over many years, and not just a token day once a year.

Companies right across our industry are doing just that, tackling issues of diversity, especially gender diversity, with activities ranging from informal networks to full-time senior leadership positions to champion the cause. We spoke to two companies with different approaches but shared goals – Bristol-Myers Squibb and Takeda.

Catherine Ohura took a calculated risk when she moved from heading up regional R&D operations in Asia to a new position – Global Lead of B-NOW, the BMS Network of Women People and Business Resource Group (PBRG).

“When I saw the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day – #BeBoldForChange – I was thrilled, because this is exactly what we’re doing as an organization and it was significant for me personally,” says Ohura. “I’ve always been in R&D and have never done anything related to diversity but when I was appointed to lead B-NOW, I was really fascinated.  It wasn’t a fully defined role so it was about creating it and making an impact directly within the business at a global level. However, for me, this was a risk, it was about me being bold in my career.”

Catherine Ohura, Bristol-Myers SquibbThe creation of B-NOW – one of eight groups that support the development of the workforce at Bristol-Myers Squibb – is a sign of the company’s boldness, she says. “There are many women’s networks in other organizations, but I don’t know any other companies that have a full-time leadership position. Instead, the person puts aside 20 or 30% of his or her time to run these networks, but BMS recognized the importance of this work and decided to make the investment in two out of the eight PBRGs. In addition to B-NOW, we have BOLD, the Black Organization for Leadership Development, so we have two senior-level positions fully dedicated to driving our inclusive culture.”

As a professional with a R&D background, research matters for Ohura. “Looking at our workforce as a totality, we are generally speaking 50:50 as an industry, so you could say we’ve reached gender parity. However, as you go up in the ranks, to the C-suite and executive positions, this is where you start losing female representation, which is exactly what we’re tackling at BMS. If you just put a focus on the US, for example, we have quite a few challenges, but I believe that by taking a worldwide perspective we can learn from other countries.”

Interestingly, those countries include China. “It is fascinating to see that gender parity has already been reached in some countries across the world, even exceeded. In China, for example, there are more females than males in the organization, including in executive positions,” she says.

Several European countries have implemented wide-ranging policies to encourage the equal participation of women in the workplace, says Ohura. “Even looking at some BMS offices in Europe, countries are approaching gender parity at all levels and we’re trying to figure out why. I am getting hints that country-specific efforts by governments, such as generous maternity leave and a culture that allows males and females equal opportunities to work full time as well as other infrastructure that supports a dual-income family, are important. My personal observation is that, culturally, there are simply no ‘allergies’, nothing that prevents males and females seeing opportunities as gender-equal in these countries.”

Ohura has a business plan for B-NOW with a two-pronged approach to advance women in the workplace – one aimed at women, the other at their male colleagues. “The first big challenge we’re trying to tackle through B-NOW is to inspire women. Through data and from conducting focus groups, we know that a lot of females weren’t inspired to move ahead, that they’re stopping themselves. They might say, an executive position sounds great with a higher salary and more responsibility, but I have two kids at home and I can’t balance it all. We need role models among our senior executives that others might aspire to be like, however, we need to tell their stories about how they manage. After eight months in role, I hear the same issues and challenges from everyone, the only difference is how they deal with them.”

The second challenge is engaging men, she says. “Again, from data and focus groups, we know that men are crucial to this process and it’s an area that we focused on during an event in recognition of International Women’s Day. It’s not about men versus women, it’s about awareness. Oftentimes, we have unconscious biases so we need to bring that awareness and tell those stories. It is through this awareness that we could start changing the culture of the organization.”

We don’t know what we don’t know

It is these unconscious biases that are the greatest challenge in moving towards a more gender-inclusive working world, says Jenny Colombo, VP, Medical Affairs Strategies and Communications at Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

“We don’t always know they’re there, but we all have biases. Sometimes gender bias can be right in your face and other times you don’t even know it’s there, so it’s about doing what we can to educate, understand and address them. Companies are starting to do this well and it is also an area that the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association is at the forefront of,” says Colombo.

These biases often reveal themselves in crucial moments for people’s careers, she says. “When having discussions around women being promoted, biases might mean believing that a woman cannot be promoted if she has small children or assuming that travel might be an issue if she has a family, without actually having that discussion with the woman in question. My background is in academia, where I started my career 20 years ago, and we still hear people talking about whether women can hold their own and be tough enough. That is not the way women want to be viewed.”

So, what is Takeda doing to tackle these issues? “It would take several days to go through everything on the list but there are several themes that really resonate for me. First and foremost, it is mentoring. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to mentor not just women but men too, and also to be mentored. While we don’t have formal processes for mentoring at Takeda, it is an organic part of our culture and we have many support systems that allow us to engage in these mentoring relationships, which are so critical for everyone, but particularly for women.”

Another theme for Colombo is health and wellbeing. “Of course, these are important for everyone but for women, especially working mothers, it can be very difficult to find the time to take care of yourself. At Takeda, we have a wonderful onsite fitness center that offers benefits like flu shots and annual bloodwork, and these are benefits that I personally cherish. For women who are running around trying to do their work, manage their families and be a leader in the organization, just being able to get annual health checks done onsite is an amazing benefit.”

Women need different kinds of support at different stages in their careers, she says. “When I first started at Takeda 10 years ago, I had a 10-year-old son, so flexible hours were incredibly important to me. The message I received when I first started was that it wasn’t the number of hours you spent at your desk but the work you did and this empowered me to believe that I could run out to see my son take part in an event if I had without anyone asking about my absence. In fact, the culture was more ‘how did you son do?’ While flexible hours are less important to me now that my son is in college, I can see how vital they are for many of the women on my team with young children.”

The benefits of gender diversity are self-evident, says Colombo. “Bringing diversity to the table immediately opens up diversity of thought, diversity of approaches – and there is plenty of data that shows who companies are more successful when they have gender equality and gender diversity at all levels of the organization. Women and men may approach issues a little bit differently and it is incredibly important to address the issues as broadly and holistically as possible. It’s critical for a business.”

While Takeda celebrated International Women’s Day with a series of events including a panel discussion involving both male and female leaders at Takeda, we need to focus on gender diversity across the long term. “March 8 is a great day to highlight the issue but it’s not just about what we do on a single day, it’s about what we do every day to be bold for change,” says Colombo.


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