Leading the way: Empowering women leaders in Canada’s pharma sector

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This article originally appeared in the The Globe and Mail on March 4, 2024.

Strong gender representation in workplace leadership helps businesses and organizations thrive, and Canada’s innovative pharmaceutical industry is leading the charge. The sector, comprised of a higher-than-average number of women leaders, supports over 100,000 jobs and contributes nearly $16-billion to the Canadian economy each year.

Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC) is a national association that helps its members discover, develop and deliver transformative medicines and vaccines. In this International Women’s Day Q&A, Brigitte Nolet, chair of the board of directors for IMC and president and CEO of Roche Canada Pharma, shares her insights into how the pharmaceutical industry is improving female representation in leadership across the board.

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day, yet we know female leadership representation is still an issue for many industries. How is the innovative pharmaceutical industry responding to this?

Our industry is taking female representation very seriously. We’re seeing more investment, effort and research for conditions that predominantly affect women. Efforts are being made to include women at every stage of the research process, so results are practical, meaningful and help make strides toward eliminating healthcare inequities.

When IMC recently surveyed its members, women made up 52.7 per cent of executive leadership teams and 54 per cent of people leaders. Comparatively, McKinsey’s 2023 Women in the Workplace report found women occupy 40 per cent of manager-level positions at a typical company.

Why is female leadership representation important?

Better health care will happen when we have leadership that reflects the population we serve. Although women represent 71 per cent of the global health-care workforce, the numbers decline at the leadership level.

Empowering women in leadership positions drives innovation and creates positive change for patients and their families. It also fosters a more engaged workforce, promotes stronger workplace policies and bolsters the Canadian economy, enabling us to effectively compete on the global stage.

Changing the composition of industry and organizational leadership is not easy. Can you walk us through IMC’s journey toward a majority female board?

When I transitioned from the federal government to Innovative Medicines Canada in 2002, there was one woman on the board of directors.

Nearly 22 years later, I’m the board chair. Today, I’m proud that 9 of 13 board positions are held by women—almost 70 per cent. This significant evolution speaks to our industry’s progress on diversity in leadership, which has been both purposeful and intentional.

Our progress has been possible because of our industry’s commitment, with both men and women at IMC and our member companies being advocates for strong female leadership representation.

Do you think the composition of leadership affects health-care service delivery?

Absolutely, it does. While science has progressed at an incredible speed over a short time, we haven’t fared as well when it comes to addressing health care and disease from a gender-specific perspective. For example, women with Type 1 diabetes are 37 per cent more likely to die from secondary complications than men. Women also think differently, which is why having our perspectives around the table is essential for developing better solutions.

How do you envision the role of women in leadership progressing over the next decade?

We’ve come a long way as an industry, and we should acknowledge that and learn from it. What did it take to get us here? And what do we have to do to get to the next level? We have to continue to advocate and champion for better representation at all levels, especially in leadership.

What are the most important steps industries and organizations can take to bridge gender representation gaps?

First, we need to make sure we have clear goals. In 2009, Roche’s executives were 13-per-cent female. A few years ago, we set a goal of 50 per cent by the end of 2022, and we ended 2023 very close to this target.

The second pillar is ensuring we have the right policies in place to help women progress through their careers—such as flexible working environments, fulsome compassionate leave policies and benefits that support the different ways families come together.

Thirdly, both men and women have to be part of the conversation. According to data from Boston Consulting Group, 96 per cent of organizations see progress when men deliberately engage in gender inclusion programs, versus 30 per cent when men are not engaged.

The fourth step is about self-reflection and understanding our unique leadership skills. Early in my career, the reasons I thought I didn’t fit the profile of a typical GM held me back. A great line manager of mine helped me see what I would bring to the role.

What are some lessons other industries can learn from the pharmaceutical sector on leadership and workplace representation?

You have to start somewhere. We have to start, keep moving and pursue our goals unrelentingly. I’m optimistic because I see what we’ve done. The next generation of leaders is waiting, and it’s our job to move them forward. By doing so, we’re going to strengthen our country’s health-care systems and economic fabric. Best of all, we’re going to have better science for patients.


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