No Gains for Women in Pharma

Nov 14, 2007
By Pharmaceutical Executive

Think women's voices within healthcare are growing louder? Think again. New research shows, despite a growing number of programs to promote diversity within the pharmaceutical industry, the number of women in senior and middle management has remained largely the same.

The study, commissioned by the nonprofit Healthcare Businesswomen's Association and fielded by Booz Allen Hamilton, drew on data from 19 US and European pharma companies. It tracked women's positions over the last five years, as well as management practices within the life sciences industry.

The study revealed that the number of senior management positions held by women remained at a constant 17 percent, while the percentage of female middle managers remained at about 34 percent since 2002. This compares with the 22 percent of total management positions women hold worldwide, according to HBA.

"So many companies are trying to better their workforces, you would think there would be some trending upward," says Laurie Cooke, CEO of HBA. "Now that we have this data, we can start helping them to refocus their resources on programs that can gain better results."

Increasingly, Big Pharma workplace programs are focused on raising the number of female leaders. The reason for these programs often echoes the much-cited research from Catalyst, which found that the Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentage of women corporate officers yielded higher return on equity and shareholder value.

So, the question remains: What helps women get up the ladder? Surprisingly, it's not just performance. Rather, the study found that women at the top say they focus on networking and relationship building, instead of "just putting your head down and getting the job done," says Cooke.

To that end, the study advises that women leaders at companies champion female-led diversity initiatives and offer networking and mentoring opportunities. One example of such a program is Executive Women Impacting Novartis, founded by Meryl Zausner, a CFO at Novartis Oncology who was named HBA's Woman of the Year. However, just what elements of these workplace programs truly encourage women to stay within the workforce remain to be seen.

Meanwhile, the industry's boards of directors remain male-dominated, but less so than other industries. Catalyst reports that, in 2006, 18 percent of Fortune 500 pharma industry boards were composed of women, compared with an average of 14.6 percent in other industries.

Still, access to those board seats remains a challenge, even for long-time female execs in the industry. "Despite the so-called shortage of directors that you read about in the business press, truth is those who have never served on a board still find it hard to land that first board seat—men or women," says Beverly Behan, managing director, board effectiveness, Hay Group.