The diversity imperative in pharma (The Pharma Letter)

The diversity imperative in pharma (The Pharma Letter)
Published: 16 December 2019

Next year, Reshma Kewalramani will be appointed as CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, to become one of just two female CEOs in the top 25 pharma companies worldwide. Though her appointment is certainly a step in the right direction, the underrepresentation of female leaders across pharma shows that the industry is behind the curve when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Katy Wallace, Principal Consultant in the Life Sciences Practice at Berwick Partners, explains why the pharma industry needs diverse leadership.

The diversity issue

Diversity remains one of the biggest challenges facing the life sciences sector. Research shows that when recruiting, people are inclined to choose people who resemble their own profile. As executive teams across the pharma sector are typically male dominated, this results in fewer females engaged at board level.

A look at the boards of the top 25 pharma companies shows that the industry has been slower to evolve and adapt. And it is not just the big organisations struggling to adapt – the smaller biotech and pharma companies emerging across the industry tend to follow suit.

The technical qualifications required by pharma industry limit the pool of candidates available to companies which can hamper diversity, and so earlier intervention is needed to encourage women and minority groups to not only pursue STEM subjects, but also business-oriented degrees like MBAs and professional qualifications and training throughout their careers. As well as this, blue-chip organisations need to look to recruit from the smaller universities, rather than a focus on redbrick, to allow their workforce to represent a wider cross-section of society.

Though diversity is increasingly on the agenda at board and entry level, pharma companies are seeing a significant drop-off of women in particular at middle management level. Female leaders across the sector, from big pharma to small biotechs, tell me that middle management leaders need to be mentored and educated so they are better equipped with the tools to identify, nurture and upskill talented individuals, and encourage them to stay in the business.

Boards are certainly identifying the need to address the diversity issue but as change is often driven by underperformance, high margin, cash rich pharma businesses are just not experiencing the same amount of external pressure as other sectors to address the diversity issue and make the necessary changes.  

​​​​​​​Why is diversity so lacking?

For those beginning careers in pharma, the traditional laboratory environment and team structure means flexible hours and working from home is often not an option. This can hinder those juggling families and other commitments to consider or be considered for senior level opportunities.

The natural modesty of many women is also a hurdle as it means they may be overlooked for senior roles, whereas men are typically more confident in putting themselves forward, regardless of perceived skills and experience.

Moreover, an unconscious bias exists within the social side of the industry, with traditional activities like golf days and pub drinks, which allow professionals to build their networks outside of the workplace, being stereotypically male and perhaps less accommodating to the needs of women and different cultures and backgrounds. 

Low confidence can be intensified by a scientist’s introverted nature - usually astute researchers and academics, they can lack confidence to lead. And with very few diverse, visible role models at the top, who should they look up to and be guided by?

The benefits of diversity

If organisations wish to grow, having access and leveraging a variety of different voices, experiences, opinions and views is crucial. After all, the work, products, actions and activities of pharma businesses affect the global population, so companies should be truly representative and reflective of the people they serve, with a genuinely diverse workforce and leadership team.

Diversity makes good business sense. Research* confirms that more diverse companies are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction and decision making, which leads to better financial performance.

Moreover, gender diversity has a positive effect on corporate success and mixed teams are more successful because they consider different experiences and perspectives**. By allowing more room for different opinions, and listening to them, pharma companies can better understand the patient voice, which informs and drives creativity and innovation in the long run.

Making the change

To attract a diverse set of people, it is key for a pharma business to demonstrate purpose. To do so, leaders must challenge themselves, asking the impact the organisation makes on its customers, clients and patients, and how it works to benefit others. Identifying the reasons why it does what it does, helps to demonstrate the organisation’s quality and values, and will go a long way in appealing to wider and diverse audience.

By tightening the focus on values and ethics, companies can work towards attracting talented leaders from a range of different backgrounds and institutions and tap into cross-sector ideas, insights, skills and expertise.

However, for a business to truly experience the benefit of diverse leaders, diversity and inclusion must be embraced by every element of its work, policies, strategies, culture and behaviour, particularly its recruitment, retention and promotion strategies. Diversity must be supported and championed in the workplace, and middle management must drive and take ownership of the diversity strategy within this tier of the business.

Companies must create an environment of mutual respect where people are encouraged to grow and develop, realise their potential and have their voices heard. And in order to fully embrace diversity, businesses must believe that flexibility is possible.

Recent years have seen a rise in the number of events, groups and networks that support women in life sciences, but formal sponsorship, mentorship and training programmes provide even greater support for women aspiring to leadership or board positions. Supporting personal and professional development is key, so we have created programmes designed to inspire, inform and encourage future leaders to navigate the next step in their career.


Diversity remains one of the biggest challenges in the recruitment of pharma leaders, and businesses need to be proactive in making a change. Large organisations need to lead by example and make diversity and inclusion a priority, rather than an option, and set the tone for the thriving life sciences sector worldwide. Pharma businesses will not reach their full potential without committing to engaging, supporting and nurturing diverse, skilled individuals, who will enable them to better connect with the broad customer population they aim to serve.

*This article first appeared in The Pharma Letter in December 2019

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