Why Is Gender Parity A Rarity?

More women than ever are entering pharma, but fewer make it to the top. What can companies do to bridge this disconnect?

There has been an awakening in response to the spate of sexual harassment scandals and gender pay gap revelations over the past year or so, as the #MeToo movement continues to gather steam and outrage galvanizes action across all industries.

Clearly, there is no quick fix to a multi-sided problem, but reshuffling company ranks would go a long way to stamping out the scourge. Yet, in pharma, while more women than ever are entering the industry, the pipeline is leaky, and women tend to drop out long before they get to leadership or board positions.

However, there are many actionable steps that organizations can take to realize the full potential of their female talent, says Laurie Cooke, CEO of the Healthcare Businesswoman’s Association (HBA).

The HBA is committed to achieving gender parity in leadership positions by facilitating career and business connections, and promoting effective practices.

Several global studies have proven that gender diversity can have a significant financial impact, says Cooke.  “The message is out there now; in previous years, it was an essential step to explain the business case for gender diversity but this has now shifted. I find I do not have to justify why this is a topic of interest to senior management now, so that is an incredible improvement.”

Yet, pharma lags behind other sectors in closing the gender gap. “The data suggests pharma has quite a long way to go when it comes to diversity, not only with gender but also with ethnicity.”

While this is a generalization – and there are distinct differences between 'big pharma' and smaller, more specialty companies - for Cooke, organizations fall into three categories. “Companies sit on a spectrum from those that get it, to companies that act like they get it, to those who unfortunately just don’t get it. You do need to know what you are dealing with."

There are myriad reasons, not least the male-dominated history of most organizations. “The people in senior roles who decide whether or not to give their time to gender diversity are men. This is not a criticism, just the reality that companies were built by men for men. A culture was created, with expectations, procedures and policies primarily for a male workforce.”

While there are more women than ever carving careers in pharma, a major problem is longevity. “In healthcare, the talent pipeline is often more than 50% women in our companies, so what’s stopping women in that pipeline from getting to the top?” asks Cooke.

Perceptions of women as primary caregivers in the home has an impact. “We have to think about the career choices we are forcing women to make, because they are choosing jobs where it is easier to balance everything. Perhaps they don’t want to travel, which affects their chances of promotion, or they need to leave early to be at home for children, which may make them look less committed.”

This means women are less likely to be found in senior P&L roles and are also more likely to be paid less; the pay differential could add up to as much as a million dollars in the lifetime of a woman.

Aggressive feedback
Unconscious bias is a normal aspect of the human condition, but a major barrier to female progression in the workplace – pharma or otherwise.

“Being a diverse and inclusive environment, we have to look at where our bias is still strong," says Cooke. "Only by identifying these biases can they be addressed.”

For example, a woman who is aggressive and assertive is often given very different feedback during performance reviews from a man who acts in a similar manner. Cooke believes that organizations need to have specific training to identify and eliminate these unconscious biases.

Organizations also need to take “a hard look” at their HR procedures, she says. “How do we ensure we bring in the best and brightest talent that is also diverse, and how do we ensure we nurture diverse talent so we don’t suffer from that leaky pipeline? You have to make it a business and strategic priority – hope is not a strategy.”

Mobilizing the middle is key, she adds. “Quite often, the middle part of the organization doesn’t mobilize but without them, organizations will continue to see it as a women’s issue and not a business issue. You’ve got to encourage middle managers and reward them; this is the key factor holding companies back when it comes to advancing gender diversity.”

Cooke has spent many years in pharma in both Europe and the US, and this experience has shaped and informed her views on the lack of gender diversity and the hurdles women face when it comes to getting to the top.

An evolution in thinking has taken place. “In Europe over recent years, very distinct changes have started, in terms of governance with quotas for women on boards or transparency regarding numbers of women. The US used to be top in terms of numbers of women on boards and executives, but now Europe has surpassed that.”

Recognizing the companies doing well in this space is part of the HBA’s strategy; by sharing best practice, this encourages naturally competitive companies to take action to keep their competitive edge, says Cooke.

Pharma needs to see gender diversity as a solution, and while some are getting there, it’s happening at a slower pace than Cooke and the HBA would like.

“Companies seem to be moving out of that ‘pretend’ stage where they say they are about gender parity to actually putting strategies in place, having that unconscious bias training, setting up internal women’s networks with sponsorship and mentoring and looking closely at how they can really make a difference. They are putting diversity and inclusion experts in at the top to ensure the message is woven throughout the fabric of the organization. The right things are happening, and I believe it is now a matter of time, but we at the HBA want to push it through faster.”