In 1999, a survey conducted by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) revealed that at 40 drug companies, fewer than 10 percent of senior managers were women. Almost a decade later, little has changed. A review of the gender composition of executive management of the top 10 companies (based on Pharm Exec's 2006 "Top 50" ranking) shows that only 12 percent of seats at the high table are occupied by women, while three firms have none at all. (See "MIA: Pharma's Female Leaders").
Findings such as these reflect "more rhetoric than reality" when it comes to advances for women in the workplace, according to the nonprofit consultancy Catalyst. Of course, pharma is not alone. Each year, Catalyst tracks the number of women who are corporate officers, top earners, and other execs in the Fortune 500 list. From 2004 to 2005, the growth rate was negligible. But in 2006, the number of women in the top ranks at the world's biggest companies actually decreased. The report of the study concluded, "At the current rate of change, it could take women 47 years to reach parity with men as corporate officers at Fortune 500 companies."
That's a sad state of affairs for women inside the pharma industry. Certainly, there are initiatives underway to lessen the disparity, such as the HBA and Women in Bio groups, which were founded to support women executives and entrepreneurs in pharma and biotechnology.
But pharma heads must understand that they have a responsibility to make changes not only in their own company but across the industry. To start, they could look to the senior management of industries such as finance, insurance, and real estate, which have done better at mirroring their consumer base—in both addressing existing markets and expanding into new markets with different demographics.
Not sold on the idea yet? It may surprise some company executives that diversifying is, in fact, in the industry's best interest: Believe it or not, more women seems to mean better performance. Fortune 500 companies with the highest proportion of female corporate officers boasted, on average, a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders than those with the lowest proportion of female execs, according to Catalyst. What's more, the Center for Women's Business Research found that, over the last two decades, majority-women-owned firms have grown at two times the rate of all businesses.
Companies with females in top positions will find it easier to recruit. Says Chris Parry, CEO of the Center for High Performance Development, an increase in the number of executive women will help companies recognize the unique value women provide.
Kristin Rand is associate director of professional education support for Wyeth. She can be reached at email@example.com