Women in the Pharma Workplace: A View from Europe

April 28, 2015

William Looney speaks to Dr. Claudia Graeve, who leads the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association's sole international chapter in Europe, on improving the prospects for female managers in the region.

No management issue in life sciences is more important than building and retaining a diverse global talent base-demographics alone prove that this goal is unobtainable without the increased participation of women. As the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) announces its latest choice for its Women of the Year award, Pharm Exec Editor-in-Chief William Looney sat down with Dr. Claudia Graeve, who leads the HBA’s sole international chapter in Europe, on improving the prospects for female managers in a region that is surprisingly hesitant about embracing a world of business without boundaries-roots, of both the geographic and cultural kind, still run deep.

Graeve, a scientist by training, signed on to the HBA network in 2010, starting as a member of the chapter’s Marketing Committee, then serving as chapter vice president before taking on the top spot last year. Graeve’s role puts her in charge of the overall strategic direction of the organization in Europe, complementing her day job as vice president at Health Advances, a Boston, MA-based life science strategy consulting firm, where she holds responsibility for the European Practice. 

“My interest in the industry dates back to when I was only 14; I learned then for the first time I would need to push twice as hard as my brother to find success in this field,” Graeve tells Pharm Exec. “I eventually obtained a masters in science and PhD in chemistry, at every stage having to work against the stereotype that women were not good in the exacting technical disciplines of math and science.” What helped her prevail was the broader exposure she found through her father’s work as an international executive, which allowed her to experience living in different countries outside her native Germany.

Pharm Exec: HBA is often assumed to be a “US-centric” organization. Can you highlight the role that HBA now plays in Europe-how deep are your roots in this, the world’s single largest market for health care?

Graeve: Europe is one of 15 local chapters of the HBA, and the only one based outside the US. We have logged steady growth since the chapter was founded in 2007, and our membership now exceeds 300 women executives representing the various parts of the European Healthcare arena, including multi-national pharmaceutical and medical device companies, CROs, communication agencies, and start-ups shaping the future of healthcare technology. The best way to describe us is as a “chapter of chapters.”  Everyone who knows Europe recognizes the historical-and continuing-importance of national interests, and that sentiment is reflected in the way our chapter operates. The strategy is to offer members the HBA’s global service framework coupled with a more focused, “hands on” local approach. Within the European chapter there are no less than nine active country groups: two in Switzerland, in Basel and Geneva/Lausanne; two in France, in Paris and Lyon; two more in Germany, in Berlin and Frankfurt; the others are located in London, Milan, and Dublin. Our Dublin and our Geneva/Lausanne groups are new and growing quickly due to strong interest in HBA activities among many of the CRO/CMO operations based in Dublin and due to the dense network of life science companies in the Lake Geneva region.

So overall, although HBA Europe clearly does not yet have the awareness HBA has in the US, we are a lively and thriving community, bringing together women (and men) from a variety of different countries and backgrounds. We are growing strongly and our volunteers are working across national and continental borders to create a solid common ground for members.

Pharm Exec: How do you strive for that distinctive approach in raising the profile of women in healthcare? 

Graeve: The chapter’s programs reflect Europe’s geographic and cultural diversity.  Although there are common challenges, the issues facing women executives in healthcare differ from country to country.  For example, there is no core consensus throughout Europe on the meaning of “gender equality.” From a purely legislative or regulatory standpoint, Sweden has one view, the UK has another, while basic cultural values diverge among the Nordics, the Anglo-Saxon countries, France, and southern Europe. I am German by background and I am well aware that rank-and-file support for women having their own career is not so strong in Germany as one might presume from abroad.

There is a lot of work still to be done in Europe to change attitudes beyond the law itself. This is why our activities emphasize networking and reaching out to those stakeholders who can help us put a human face on the value of workplace diversity.

Pharm Exec: Do you see real contrasts between the US and Europe with regard to the pace of progress on workplace issues affecting female executives?

Graeve: The US continues to exert strong influence on trends in Europe, if only because many of the practical aspects of workplace engagement started there. The big US-based global players in pharma took up female executive empowerment early on, in no small part because the HBA was founded in the industry’s base in New Jersey back in 1979. That involvement by the US multinationals quickly took on a global dimension, which means that US corporate initiatives to promote women in management are extended to include the European operations and alignment initiatives are fueled to deliver a global approach to the topic.

This, in turn, has reinforced the competitive desires of the major European-based pharma companies to keep pace. Many, especially large, players in the industry in Europe now offer internal leadership training geared to their women employees as well as mentoring opportunities, which are often benchmarked against the competition. Quintiles, for example, conducts an annual survey of its performance on management that it rates against others in the CRO community and then uses to develop action plans for each of its local businesses. We are also seeing in Europe the extension of our agenda in corporate management performance reviews, including those of the most senior male executives. I suggest that has happened largely as a consequence of demands from corporate HQ for diversity programs that are globally aligned.

Pharm Exec: What are the European chapter’s key program priorities for 2015 and beyond?

Graeve: The overriding objective is to keep growing the membership and to attract even greater attention to our cause. We recognize that women benefit from tailored support to make most of their career opportunities and we aim to act as a catalyst for personal and professional growth. It is the vision of a better future to which healthcare can contribute that inspires and uplifts us as women in this industry. It is an opportunity to share, to give and to co-create that we want to put at the disposal of our members.

How do we plan to do it? Through the three key pillars of our program offering. These consist of training opportunities in leadership and business thinking through our events; leadership development opportunities through volunteering; and a one-on-one mentoring program to fuel personal development. Our chapter provides access to an unparalleled network of women from different areas, different countries and different professional experiences and we plan to foster this diversity and grow the network further this year and in the years to come.

In 2014, we hosted 41 information, strategy and networking events, a fundamental pillar of our offering, as well as a pan-European summit, in Eschborn, Germany, that we co-hosted with EY, the global professional services firm.

This year’s summit will convene in Amsterdam at the end of October and will center on managing global teams. This is an area that we are well experienced in, since our own Chapter Board is located all over Europe, not only in our nine locations. It works closely with the global HBA community to manage the local offering. 

Our 2015 goal is to increase local events to 50 high quality events-an average of one per week, on topics that will drive a “leadership in practice” agenda, with the overall aim of advancing each member’s career development, in a safe setting that allows for the sharing of experiences to help women” stretch” and raise their game in an increasingly competitive regional market for healthcare talent. We will also be relying more on webinars and other interactive online networking platforms to supplement face-to-face contacts. In line with these activities, we will continue with our cross-country mentoring program, a three-year-old program we have implemented across Europe to allow potential mentors and mentees from different organizations to apply online and where we facilitate the right match.

Though we intend to remain close to global flagship companies here in Europe, we are also reaching out to the mid-size pharma community, biotech, and service organizations like CROs. I personally believe there is significant potential in facilitating useful knowledge transfers among companies that are in various stages of engagement on finding and keeping female management talent, and this provides our members with a rich tapestry of experiences within the healthcare ecosystem.

Another initiative I am personally excited about is the re-launch of our Women in Science group in Basel. This is a peer exchange effort to help our women scientists make the transition to executive management, as well as to find ways to keep young female scientists engaged on the career path to top R&D positions, especially during the peak child-bearing years.

Pharm Exec: Does HBA take a position on policy issues in Europe, such as the campaign to mandate more female representation on private-sector corporate boards?

Graeve: We observe legislative developments but we are not lobbyists with the aim to direct laws or regulation. A key concern here in Europe is representation on boards, a movement that began in Norway a decade ago, when a diversity quota was introduced. The facts show that, despite the intent, the number of female CEOs in Norway has risen in the past decade from about 3% of publicly traded companies to  6%-not a big change. This suggests that legislation alone may not be sufficient to produce tangible results. The public debate induced by these efforts has certainly been valuable, but in the end what matters is whether the enhanced participation will actually lead to a working culture of female empowerment.