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Women in the pharma industry

Published on 03/09/13 at 09:14am
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In the past pharma has been accused of being too male-orientated in both the laboratory and the boardroom. The idea of the ‘old boys club’ still haunts the industry, but is this culture changing in the 21st century?

Pharmafocus talks to Jane Griffiths about these issues, a woman who gained a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Aberystwyth in 1982 and rose up the ranks of Johnson & Johnson to become the first female company group chairman of its pharma unit Janssen in the EMEA region.

Ben Adams: How did you get into your current position?

Jane Griffiths: I started in the industry as a sales representative and had various roles throughout the organisation, but one of the key factors in getting to the role like mine at J&J is that you get different experiences in your career. So you get there by not just going from one logical step to another to get to a reasonably senior position.

So I have worked in global areas for the firm; I’ve worked across Europe and in jobs where I didn’t have a huge amount of line responsibility, but where you had to learn to influence people and to work with people by influence rather than just through line responsibility.

I think you have to have a good track record of success - in terms of developing people, in terms of delivering the business, in your demeanour and how you deal with people in the company - so all the sorts of things you look for in a leader, plus delivering on the goals you are set. Now I think that is one important thing.

Some can go through their careers ticking boxes and thinking that’s enough - but it’s not; you have to ensure that you’ve really delivered. It’s also important to make sure that you develop people to succeed you.

BA: You have obviously been successful, but given that you are the first woman to take the chair position of Janssen’s EMEA region, did you ever feel that your gender was a factor at J&J?

JG: No, I don’t believe my rise in the company has anything to do with my sex. I could be going through life blissfully ignorant, but I’d like to think I’m here because of what I’ve contributed to the organisation.

But I know what you’re getting at and I absolutely have to make sure that any women I put into a position on my watch and in my organisation are the best person for the company and have been put into the best position for them and for the firm.

Otherwise it is a totally negative reason to put them in that role, because people could think: “Well she’s useless at her job, and only got there because she’s a woman” and that’s just a nightmare scenario.

BA: But when you were rising up the ranks at J&J, you never felt that sexism was an issue - that men would try to stop you from taking the higher positions?

JG: No, I’ve never felt that throughout my entire career. Maybe I’m lucky and perhaps I work for a company that doesn’t have sexism in its culture, but I’ve never felt that.

BA: But looking more broadly in the industry and outside of J&J, do you think there is a glass ceiling for women in pharma, and is it any worse than in other industries?

JG: So asking about how we in pharma compare to other industries is an interesting one - actually the healthcare industry as a whole is slightly better in that respect in terms of women on boards than on other industries, so if anything it might be easier than more difficult for women to get ahead in pharma than in some other industries.

BA: But why are we in a situation where there are no female chief executives in any of the top 20 pharma firms?

JG: Well, you tell me! But really I think that historically there have been fewer women getting into more senior positions in organisations, and if you don’t have a feeder pull for the chief executive, then getting into more senior positions in organisations becomes more difficult.

I think it is going to take a whole generation to change this completely and that’s what I think companies are trying to work on now. But it is more difficult and there are periods in a woman’s life where other things come into play like having a family for example, and then it becomes more difficult.  

So what firms need to do is to set up support systems within companies to try to help women stay in their career and also to set up better systems within your job; things like flexible working hours or the ability to work from home; like engendering new leaders that have an understanding that women sometimes need to go home for their families and know that this doesn’t make them bad at their job.

I also think that there is a new generation of younger men coming through now who take much more responsibility in family duties than maybe they would have one or two generations ago. So I think that is going to benefit them as much as it is women, but overall we need organisations to be more family friendly. 

BA: Would you say there is still, or have you ever experienced, the so-called ‘old boys club’ in pharma?

JG: Personally, in my own career, I haven’t experienced an ‘old boys club’ mentality. I don’t think we should confuse the fact that men like talking about football or rugby or anything like that to be old boys club as that’s just a shared interest. To me an old boys club is something that actively excludes women and doesn’t help them to get on with their careers.

Sometimes I’ll be with my team and the men will say “shall we go off for a drink at the bar” and some of the women will just say they want to go to sleep. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter because it’s not as if the men are ‘cooking something up’ behind people’s backs. I think that sometimes women can be too sensitive about this, but men having a shared interest around sport, or whatever it might be, are simply natural and not intended to exclude.

It’s when it becomes divisive that there is a problem and I would always coach my team not to be like that. But maybe I’m lucky as I’ve not experienced the old boys club in my career, but that’s not to say I haven’t seen it elsewhere.

BA: Currently men outnumber women in science graduate degrees in the UK - how can we better address this imbalance to encourage more women into biology, chemistry, mathematics, and so on?

JG: I think whether adolescents go into science or not, regardless of gender, stems from how much encouragement they receive when they are young, and that can be at home, but certainly at school. This is where there needs to be no placing of boys in the ‘hard’ science-based programmes like mathematics or physics, and putting girls into the ‘softer’ programmes like English and art for instance.

But it does start when you’re very young. My mother went to university and that was unusual for someone of her generation. She studied chemistry and went on into a career as an industrial chemist at ICI, and so when I was brought up in that environment, meaning it was natural for me to know that women can be good scientists as well as men.

I feel very privileged that my mother told me early on not to compromise on my career - if that’s what you want to do, make sure you stick with it. And you have to remember that my mother was of a generation where there was an expectation that she left her job to follow her husband and raise a family.

But actually attitudes even from those times might not be that straightforward. As an example, about five years ago my father told me he felt guilty about having that expectation, and said it was the thing that was done in those days. But this all shows how much influence you can have as a parent on your children.

BA: So in the Western world there has, you think, been a cultural shift away from those attitudes that expected women to stay in the home instead of striving for a career?

JG: I do, and I think the statistics of women going into engineering now for instance is greater than it was 10 to 15 years ago, so that’s a good example of the change we’re seeing. And in fact that has been some active efforts in making this happen and it’s certainly paying off.

BA: Speaking of engineers and role models, I believe it was the broadcaster Carol Vorderman - who has a degree in engineering herself - that helped run the campaigns for children to get involved in mathematics - does pharma or medicine have a similar role model for women - and does it need one?

JG: Perhaps because it is great to have role models and having something to aspire to, and I think to have a few more female chief executives of big pharma would be good from that point of view.

I know in my position - and even though I’m not a chief executive I am responsible for a big part of the business - that so many women now come to me to talk about how I managed to juggle my family with my career path.

To be honest, most of the questions I’m asked relate to how I managed it all, and my answer is always that they shouldn’t try and be perfect every day. One day you might need to be the best J&J employee on the planet but then the next day you’ll need to be the best mum or wife that you can be.

One of the things women do is put too much pressure on themselves about being good at everything all the time. Maybe there are some angels out there that can be, but most of us are just normal people, and it’s important to remember that.

And what can you give by being a role model is to show that you’re not perfect, that you can make mistakes at home at work, but be judged by how you deal with that.

BA: So the more women who climb the ladder and gain positions such as yours should create a knock-on effect for the rest of the industry and build from there, rather than having the one ‘perfect’ role model?’

JG: Yes I think so. I am actually on the board for the Healthcare Business Women’s Association and invariably the discussions on the board’s panels revolve around ‘what do I need to do to progress in my career’ and ‘how do I juggle everything?’

The point about a role model or role models is about them being accessible, authentic and not ‘God-like’ as they have to be seen to be like everyone else to make people aspire to be like them, rather than making that position look to be out of reach. We’ll get there with women chief executives but it will take a little while longer for that to happen.

BA: Do you see women in your organisation now who are chief executive material?

JG: Yes, absolutely, there are women I can see fulfilling that role and I think that could happen in the next five to ten years’ time.

BA: What would the pharma world look like if we reversed the current male hierarchy and had all women chief executives and female-dominated boardrooms? And if this was so, would the pharma industry be in a better position that it is today?

JG: That is a difficult question to answer of course, but I wouldn’t be in favour of an all-female led industry because I’m more in favour of diversity, and that can be gender, or culture, or race, and so on. In terms of whether we’d be in a better position now, well I would of course love to say yes, of course we would be, but there are many factors to take into account.

But there has been a report by consultancy firm McKinsey back in 2007 that was designed to find out why some companies were performing better when they had three or more women on the board. They went on to identify a set of qualities that seemed to be the very qualities chief executives thought necessary for the future success of their organisation.

Of course those skills and qualities could have been in a man, but they are more often seen in women, according to that study. And I think J&J really embraces that and although we had a new male chief executive in Alex Gorsky, as soon as he came in he highlighted the importance of diversity and inclusion. And of course he was in the leadership race with Sheri McCoy, showing that a female chief executive really is not that far away.

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