As we celebrate the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, giving women the right to vote, the pharmaceutical industry, in common with many sectors, is using the milestone to evaluate how much real progress it has made in achieving equal opportunity, particularly at senior levels. 2018 has also seen large businesses reporting on their gender pay gap for the first time. Whilst there are limitations to the reporting, this has sharpened the focus on equality in the workplace. It has also increased debate on whether business is set up to support all employees to progress in their career, regardless of their gender.

The benefits of diversity from a business perspective are well recognised: research by Lu Hong and Scott Page from 2004 established that diverse groups of problem solvers outperform “brightest and best” groups, while more recent research from McKinsey shows that return on equity and margin on EBIT are consistently higher in companies with diverse boards.

In GSK’s Emma Walmsley, the pharma industry now has a standard bearer. Women are marching up the ranks at a number of businesses and young women are entering academia in STEM subjects in higher numbers than young men. Yet in most pharmaceutical companies there are still far more men in senior positions than women. There is increasing acknowledgement that, to benefit from gender diversity at board level, industry needs to be diverse in its approach to supporting and encouraging people as they progress through their careers. This approach should be based on a deeper understanding as to why women are still not reaching the higher levels at the same rate as their male counterparts.

Two women in senior leadership roles at Sanofi talked about their career progression, their experience as women in the industry and progress for women generally.

Eugenia Wachters, general manager of general medicines, Sanofi UK

“What attracted me to the industry was the combination of science and the commercial environment. I trained as a biochemist and moved through the ranks on the commercial side of the industry, starting as a sales rep for GSK before progressing into marketing and getting my first corporate experience in Paris. When the previous country manager for the Netherlands left, to my surprise I was offered the job and became the first female country manager.

“I later took another corporate position in Paris, covering a large emerging markets region, and spent three years travelling a lot. Eventually I wanted to move back into general management so when I was offered the general manager position for our General Medicines here, I moved to the UK.

“There have been moments in my career when I felt being a woman didn’t play in my favour. I went for a job as a marketing director and didn’t get it. I believe this decision was influenced by a difference in the perception of female leadership traits versus male ones. The feedback I had was that I was missing some leadership skills and was not decisive enough. That was a key learning point as I realised that this was due to the confidence my male colleagues were displaying and that I was just not visible enough.

“Informal networking is still harder for women, especially as you get higher up within an organisation. Informal networking tends to take place in evenings, often over dinners, and it is not always easy as a woman to informally join in with a group of men.

“Another issue is lack of confidence on the part of women: the ‘could I do this, am I up to that?’ question. Mentoring and coaching can help: I have benefited from having an external coach and an internal mentor. When I was nominated for country manager for the Netherlands, I was mentored by the US general manager. That gave me great insight and a good sparring partner. Sanofi UK has a mentoring programme, and although it’s not specifically directed at women, it’s of obvious benefit. And often it’s the informal support that helps; it was actually a female colleague who suggested I go for the job in Paris. Women can encourage women and help each other to apply for jobs.

“Sanofi has put several initiatives in place to advance the progression of women. We have a global diversity Board, and there are female networks developing across the company.

“As an industry, we’re quite representative across the employee base as a whole, but we can definitely do more to help women progress further up in organisations. By putting female role models in the spotlight and showing examples of women in senior executive positions, we can encourage women already in pharma, as well as attract talented women at the start of their careers.”

Jasmin Hussein, head of dermatology and respiratory at Sanofi UK and Ireland

“I studied medicine at the University of Cambridge and qualified as a neurosurgeon before taking a pharmacovigilance position at Hoffman La Roche. I worked in a range of global clinical development roles for Roche before joining Sanofi in 2006, working in medical affairs on CNS, later moving into oncology. Following the acquisition of Genzyme in 2011 I took on new product responsibilities, and was offered the opportunity to move over to Commercial where I now lead Sanofi’s dermatology and respiratory franchise for the UK and Ireland.

“At no stage on my journey did I think ‘Why did they ask me, why did they not ask my male colleague?’ I have always felt empowered to try new roles. I like to be challenged and I like variety. I also like working with people, and that helps. If people see you engaged and adding value they will think you are an asset to any team.

“But I often ask myself why we don’t see more females in very senior roles? Women often don’t put themselves forward for things because they feel unprepared or not ready. A lot of my female colleagues have an ingrained feeling that unless they have total confidence they can do the job well, they shouldn’t put themselves forward. I’ve at times been flying by the seat of my pants but I did it and have enjoyed it.

“I also know from colleagues that some women feel like a fraud. Many feel comfortable as first line managers but it’s hard to get to the next level up. In my area of the business, we’ve got a ‘lean-in’ group and we talk about how to manage women not feeling worthy enough.

“That’s an issue that we as an industry need to work on. I have never seen Sanofi put barriers up to advancement of women. But across the industry we need to see more women in top positions. We need to help people develop their confidence and see themselves as able to apply their skillset outside of their immediate area of competence.

“As a woman you can also get diverted onto other things which can dilute your career aspirations, particularly when you have a family. I made the tough decision as a surgeon not to have a family, because I had seen colleagues getting delayed reaching the top jobs. That was a personal decision, but it is not a sacrifice every ambitious woman should have to make.

“I want to make sure that ladies reading this article feel confident that they are capable and should embrace their skills and diverse leadership traits.”

The verdict from Wachters and Hussein: the industry is making progress but there is still a way to go. Individual organisations have woken up to the importance of not only promoting more women to senior roles, but on facilitating the development and support networks which help them advance. But more can always be done, including increasing efforts to role model diverse senior management teams.