MM&M‘s second annual Hall of Femme event was anything but a numerical exercise. The 16 honorees earned induction for reaching some of the highest echelons of the business, running blockbuster brands, and launching million-dollar marketing campaigns.
For those who enjoy hearing successful people share pearls of wisdom gleaned from their rise to the top, there was plenty to like about the event. For one, Susan Sweeney, head of worldwide commercialization for Bristol-Myers Squibb, talked about the path from her parents’ small-town hardware store to leading four worldwide brand teams, plus worldwide access and pricing, operations, and customer operations teams.
As I read the recap of her keynote, I was also struck by the hard link Sweeney made between gender balance and achieving breakthroughs. As it turns out, this is a case where quantity can also lead to quality.
“I know, without a doubt, that the moments in my career when I’ve been able to make the greatest impact have been when I’ve been a member of or led a team that draws from diverse experiences, skill sets, and backgrounds. This includes racial, cultural, and gender diversity. Such teams are responsible for the impact we’ve made as an industry on patients,” she said.
In a McKinsey analysis she cited, companies with more diversity were found to perform better than those without. And, she added, researchers writing in Harvard Business Review showed the more women in the room, the higher the collective IQ level.
If it’s a known quantity that the more diversity there is on corporate boards and decision-making teams, the better the business outcome, why is it that only 20% to 30% of leadership teams across the healthcare industry, Sweeney estimated, are made up of women? Especially when the rates of men and women graduating from colleges and medical schools is roughly 50-50. We can do better.
If it’s a matter of ROI, then public companies owe it to their shareholders, said Susan Windham-Bannister, who at one time administered an innovation initiative that brought $1 billion in funding to the state of Massachusetts.
Among the steps she took was to put more women on boards. Women at the time held 16% of the board seats in the 100 largest life science companies in the state, and 22 had no women at all. In 2016, a record 140 women held seats.
These are signs of progress, but there is much more to do. Just sponsoring internships and encouraging mentoring can go a long way. “Invest in the pipeline of women and girls coming to the field,” Windham-Bannister advised the Femme crowd.
At BMS, which Sweeney said has been focused on correcting imbalance, teams are gender-diverse up to the director level. “But in the executive level, there is more work to do. We need exponential change to make this happen.”
I invite you to comment on our progress, or lack thereof, as we continue to draw attention to this vital issue. Our goal is to make gender parity a priority, and to keep our spotlight trained on it. At least until the glass ceiling is broken in pharma, once and for all.
Marc Iskowitz is editor in chief of MM&M.