MM&M on Thursday hosted Hall of Femme, its second annual half-day event in New York, aimed at tackling some of the most pressing issues facing women in their healthcare marketing careers.


Susan Sweeney, SVP and head of worldwide commercialization at Bristol-Myers Squibb, delivered a call to action to attendees, saying building diverse teams is not just about delivering social justice — it’s just good business.

“In our industry, it’s even more important that we build diverse teams, when we have diverse teams, we get better outcomes,” she pointed out. “When I’ve been a part of teams that are diverse, those are the teams that help patients and that work tirelessly to make sure that we’re collectively advancing healthcare.”

Even so, Sweeney said that as she’s progressed throughout her career she counts fewer and fewer women among her peers. “In general, I’ve been a part of diverse terms throughout my career, but as my career continues to advance, that’s not always been the case,” she said. “Many times I’m the only woman in the room.”

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Sweeney drew attention to the wide gap between advancements in healthcare and progress in gender parity among company leadership. “Although we’ve made some advancements in healthcare, it’s amazing [how] little progress we’ve had at the top of the house,” she said. “I challenge every one of you men and women to accelerate the change in diversity. Patients are waiting for us.”

– Kevin McCaffrey


From left: Marc Iskowitz, MM&M; Laurie Keating, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals; Susan Windham Bannister, Biomedical Growth Strategies; Massachusetts State Senator Karen Spilka; Molly Ryan, Otsuka

Making change at the policy level is one way to accelerate that change. A panel discussion at the event focused on a $1 billion investment in Massachusetts that helped fuel innovation and bring more women to the table in the life sciences industry. For example, the fund offers tax incentives for companies that commit to creating and retaining new jobs.

Susan Windham-Bannister, president and CEO of Biomedical Growth Strategies, which manages the $1 billion fund, explained her company engaged in “active outreach to women entrepreneurs to have women come in and compete for those dollars.”

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“We understand in Massachusetts that STEM fields need access to the best possible talent. Women represent 50% of that talent pool. It’s really important that we create access to the part of the pool that is represented by women,” she pointed out. “It’s why diversity inclusion is as much a social justice issue as it is an economic and business strategy issue.”

Massachusetts State Senator Karen Spilka has focused on the issue of diversity on boards of directors, noting some recent legislation she sponsored to bring more women into leadership roles. “We can’t just wait,” she said.

Two years ago, the Massachusetts Legislature passed Spilka’s Women on Boards resolution, the goal of which, she said, was to bring more women into leadership positions. She was the lead sponsor of another bill that passed last year — An Act to Establish Pay Equity — that prevents pay discrimination for comparable work. “We can’t just wait,” she said.

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Another panelist, Molly Ryan, senior direct of government affairs and advocacy for Otsuka Pharmaceutical, said women have to stop second-guessing themselves because, in that way, they undermine their own confidence. “When you look at a job description, if you can’t check off the 20 qualifications that are on it, and you just find 5, you might think ‘maybe I’m unqualified,’” she said “You need to make the argument about why you need to be in that position.”


– Kevin McCaffrey



From left: Jaimy Lee,  MM&M; Soma Gupta, Pfizer; Quita Highsmith, Genetech; Darlene Dobry, Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide

Women only represent 20% of the C-suite in corporate America so there’s a pretty high likelihood that they will be only one of two or three women in a board room, and that requires them to amplify their voice, said Soma Gupta, VP and commercial lead for rare disease in North America at Pfizer during a panel discussion.

“There’s this idea to echo what another woman has said, because sometimes our voices do get lost,” said Gupta. “It’s helpful when someone else says, ‘Look, I think she made a good point and we should talk about it.’”

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But first, women need to make an effort to sit at the center of the table rather than on the sidelines to make their voices heard, said Quita Highsmith, head of alliance and advocacy relations at Genentech. 

Women contribute about $3 trillion to global healthcare per year, added Darlene Dobry, managing partner of Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide. “By nature, we are nurturers, caregivers, the chief health and wellness officers of our home,” said Dobry. “We have the insights to fix the challenges we’re facing in healthcare through our experiences, perhaps even enhance the customer experience because we’ve been there.”

But oftentimes, the stigma of being seen as bossy or not having the right answer holds women back from voicing their ideas, the executives agreed. 

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It’s important for women in senior roles to lead by example, encouraging other women and helping them take the next steps in their careers, they said.

Highsmith said she actively asks for the opinions from her more soft-spoken staff. “Every time I’ve done that, I’ve gotten a good idea,” she said.

In fact, when agencies come in to pitch to Genentech with teams that are not diverse, the drugmaker does not hire them, said Highsmith. “They’re not going to be speaking to our patient audience, which is diverse,” she said. “We expect people with diverse skills and backgrounds, because we want to make sure we get the best product.”

– Virginia Lau


From left: Larry Dobrow, MM&M; Shilpa Shah-Mehta, Novartis Oncology; Wendy Blackburn, Intouch Solutions; Margaret Long, Astellas

“It’s stepping ahead and not being afraid,” said Margaret Long, VP of business communications and stakeholder engagement for Astellas, about how should we sums up her path to success.

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“You have to accept who you are. It’s a male-dominated industry,” she added. “Pretending you’re one of the guys — that was not sustainable to me. When you succeed you are given the autonomy to do more. Focus on that, and spend less time worrying that you’re in the old boys club. My success was rooted in the idea that I could sell drugs, build relationships, and get stuff done.”

Shilpa Shah-Mehta, executive director of oncology marketing for Novartis, too, noted the importance of drawing confidence in being comfortable with who you are. “Don’t apologize to provide context,” she said. “That’s not necessary. Be authentic and true to yourself. Beyond that, don’t self inflict. Get back to your confident statement and know what you have to say. “

Wendy Blackburn, EVP of Intouch Solutions, noted how insidious gender discrimination can be. “The challenge is that gender inequality can be subtle and difficult to recognize in some cases,” she said. “But for me the strategy has to been to realize he’s doing it, and think through specific strategies to deal with it.”

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Specifically, Blackburn drew attention to one particular example: “Someone new came into the organization, they were treating me differently. Frankly, I was over them in the organization chart, but they would say things like: ‘Wendy, would you send the calendar notes?’ or ‘Wendy, would you take notes for the meetings?’ That’s when I started paying attention.”

One attendee asked how the panelists focus, having so many responsibilities, to stay in the moment. Blackburn answered by drawing attention to the importance of unplugging from technology after work — especially given that she works at a digital-centric agency — but noted, too: “Yoga and alcohol.”

– Kevin McCaffrey



From left: Takisha Green, WPP Team Pfizer; Tifair Hamed,; Pepper Miller, The Hunter-Miller Group

Three panelists stressed the importance of reaching African-American patients with messaging that resonates with them.

Tifair Hamed, former director of branding and communications for, said marketers need to better tailor their communications to African-American audiences. “How can you talk about a food-related disease, without talking about soul food?” she said about some diabetes-related marketing efforts.

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She also noted that most African-Americans access the internet through their mobile phones rather than desktop computers, telling marketers they need to be mindful of how they present information on smaller screens.

Marketers may be missing out on significant business opportunities by not approaching their marketing with these audiences in mind, said Pepper Miller, president of the Hunter-Miller Group. “In the next ten years, the growth is going to come from ethnic segments,” she said. “We need to wrap our minds around [how to communicate],” with these groups.

Still, Takisha Green, VP of regulatory compliance for WPP’s Team Pfizer, said some ads aimed at more diverse audiences are hitting the mark, calling out Sanofi’s ad for its insulin Toujeo. The ad features a Hispanic man dancing while cooking and spending time with family. “You have to target people from a space they understand,” she said. “Hispanic audiences, in particular, they like to dance and spend time with family. They use this individual to bring in the audience. That’s the kind of marketing you need to do.”

– Kevin McCaffrey