International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. IWD has occurred annually for over a century and this year Clinical Trials Arena would like to pay tribute to women in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industries.

The Role of Women within the Life Sciences Industry Today

Historically, the life sciences industry has been accused of being predominantly male, in both the laboratory and the boardroom. Although several global studies point to the fact gender diversification reaps greater financial results, the percentage of female executive directors in the pharmaceutical industry was only 7.69 percent in 2017.

Contrast that result with that from a 2016 industry survey by Recruiting Executives Inc., which surveyed women of varying levels of experience within the pharmaceutical industry. It found that roughly 90 percent of female respondents had been promoted at least once in their career, with nearly 38 percent saying they had worked their way into management level roles and above. What this indicates is that the industry is slow to achieve equality much in the way it is slow to adopt change in age-old processes.

Are Women Getting the ‘Wrong’ Degrees or Does the Industry Prefer Male Leaders?

However, the imbalance of gender is not an issue that’s entirely unique to drugmakers – among the Fortune 500, 6.4 percent were female CEOs. There are many debates surrounding the reason behind gender inequality, specifically in the pharmaceutical industry. Many suspect it is due to the industry being very specific with academic and professional requirements for leadership positions.

A majority of sponsor companies look for individuals with a science-related background to appoint as CEOs. Studies show the majority of females gravitate towards arts and humanities-related degrees, compared to the majority of males who hold science and business-related degrees.

In a recent Q&A featured on CTA, Jacquie Mardell, VP Clinical Operations, Ascendis Pharma said early on in her career, becoming a clinical research associate (CRA) without being medically qualified was very difficult.

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“Where I worked, all clinical research associates were nurses,” Mardell said. “I had to break through the then-conventional wisdom that a non-medical person would be unable to perform effectively in that role.”

To overcome the challenges she’s faced throughout her career, Mardell said she remained patient while taking time to learn from each job that she held.

“I adhered to my personal values of accountability, striving to do the right thing in any situation. And some has been sheer luck – being in the right place at the right time,” she said.

Notable Women in the Industry You Need to Know

In 2017, Emma Walmsley became GlaxoSmithKline’s CEO, making her the first woman to lead a big pharma company. Interestingly, Walmsley’s background isn’t in science, but classics and modern literature, with prior experience working in the consumer brands industry.

At the recent J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, Walmsley was asked about female leadership in the life sciences. She responded by referring to how she thinks of her job – that is, about the company and the medicine it makes first, rather than her gender.

“I recognize the responsibility I have as a leader, in brackets a little bit, as a role model, because you’re more visible whether you like it or not, you just are more visible for that. And I have – I want to – represent diversity in that sense.” Walmsley believes as well as gender, the LGBT community, racial diversity and personality also need to be better represented.

“We should be much more proactive about sponsoring and supporting all types of diversity to get to the senior leadership positions,” she said.

Over time, women are gradually making a name for themselves within the life sciences industry. Below, are other influential women of note within pharma:

  • Jane Griffiths, Global Head at Actelion
  • Azita Saleki-Gerhardt, SVP and President of Operations at AbbVie
  • Dr Vicki Goodman, Head, New Asset Development Teams at Bristol-Myers Squibb
  • Freda C. Lewis Hall, Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at Pfizer
  • Aarti Shah, Chief Information Officer at Eli Lilly
  • Susan Shiff, SVP and Head of the Center for Observational and Real-World Evidence (CORE) at Merck & Co
  • Nancy Valente, VP of Global Product Development (Hematology/Oncology) at Roche’s Genentech unit

The increasing number of women inspired to make a difference are slowly changing. But what the list above demonstrates is that women are breaking down barriers as more take up senior leadership positions. To all the women the life sciences industry, we at Clinical Trials Arena salute you!