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Female workforce in pharma: Knocking on the glass ceiling?

With roughly only one women out of ten professionals constituting the workforce of the Indian pharma industry, it seems that it may take a long while before the sector can claim a healthy gender diversity ratio. However, despite the challenges, women stalwarts are defying stereotypes to create space for more ladies in top leadership in the India Pharma Inc

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Nationwide, most industries are guilty of having skewed gender equality ratios and the Indian pharmaceutical industry is no exception. According to a report published by Mercer India, female representation in the pharma industry is just 11 per cent — of the 49.5-million-plus strong. The statistics vary across sectors. While female representation in the manufacturing function stands at 12 per cent, 17 per cent in R&D and 21 per cent in corporate functions, it slopes down to a mere 5 per cent in the sales and marketing function.

The figures are even more dismal when it comes to the percentage of women in top leadership roles. Yes, the industry can boast of a few women leaders — like Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. But the truth is that a lot more numbers need to be added up before the Indian pharma industry can fix the gender gap in its top leadership.

Unfortunately, it is nothing less than ironical that while traditionally, women are the main healthcare providers at homes, their representation in an industry that is the backbone of the country’s healthcare system is completely disproportionate, especially in top leadership roles. However, interestingly, it could very well be that pharma companies could actually gain by improving their workforce’s gender diversity.

According to a 2018 report by McKinsey Global Institute, India could add up to $0.7 trillion — more than 18 per cent — to its GDP by 2025, simply by paying attention to the slanting balance of its gender equality scales. Also, it is only fair that companies should represent and reflect their customers and their end-users. But, what are the challenges that limit women from scaling the ladder to the top in the pharma sector?

Stuck with stereotypes?
As Archana Bhaskar, Chief Human Resource Officer, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories points out, the Indian pharma industry has been relatively more traditional and conservative with its practices. Dr Gagandeep Kang, Executive Director, Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, talks on similar lines, “Traditionally, male-dominated workplaces are not willing to make accommodation for women — whether it is flexibility in working hours, safety or child care in the workplace. Women are not supported, or encouraged, or made to believe that they are capable of handling important, complex responsibilities — that goes against all that we know women can do.”

Limitations for many women (to scale up) often begin at home, and from within. Sandhya Shenoy, Associate Vice President, FDC, points out, “Women have to shake off the mindset that they are less deserving. Society has conditioned us to be content and less ambitious. However, the larger problem exists within. Women have an inherent urge and take it as a moral responsibility to excel at the roles of a daughter, sister, wife and mother. Anything outside these roles does not matter and this includes their careers as well. This has resulted in women paying scant attention to self-development.” Furthermore, biases and gender stereotyping in manufacturing industries can lead to a lack of confidence in women, acting as a barrier to their dreams of being in leadership positions.

These biases may even worsen the operational difficulties that women face due to the nature of their jobs. Tripti Nakhare, Senior General Manager – Regulatory Affairs, FDC, points out that as production activities usually span over irregular shifts, social norms may restrict ladies from working beyond certain hours. “Moreover, Indian law used to prohibit working of female employees beyond permissible hours, i.e. after 7:00 pm/8:30 pm/9:30 pm/10:00 pm in factories and establishments. However, the Act has been amended so we may see a rise in the number as some women may prefer to work in the second shift so as to balance work and home. Sales entails touring which keeps women away from home where they definitely shoulder a larger share of responsibility. Not all families adapt to this. Also, not every place in India is safe for a woman travelling alone,” Nakhare points out.

Women leaders may also face resistance more than their male counterparts. Sharing her thoughts on the matter, Antoinette Gawin, President & CEO, Terumo BCT says, “I have not experienced this (resistance by men over women leadership). But, early in my career, there were some touchy situations, driven in part by my age vs my gender. I had my first Executive role at GE when I was 27 and became a VP at 29. That created questions and natural concern. I also went through two pregnancies in that period. Very frightening for those who grew up in an environment where pregnant women ‘absented themselves’ from the public eye.”

In the end, competence always wins. Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology affirms the notion that a strong leader will be able to successfully lead their team, irrespective of their gender. She adds, “Those team members who are resistant to hard work and change would probably have the same attitude irrespective of the gender of the leader. If you have the confidence, you can deliver.”

Dearth of role models
Ask any women leader in the pharma industry and they will agree that having a female role model, or mentor, can have a significant impact on a youngster’s career. But with such debilitated numbers of successful women leaders in the industry, the industry could well be in quite a serious dearth of role models for its young and upcoming. Talking about how role models can influence a young woman by expanding their exposure, Mary Rodgers, ‘virus hunter’, Principal Scientist and Head, Abbott Global Surveillance Center, says, “In general, I think exposure is a big hurdle because girls don’t always have role models who will plant an idea in their heads, whether it’s a subject to take in school, a summer class or internship to explore, or having confidence in their own skills, they may not be thinking in the right direction. I was really fortunate to have strong female mentors and role models at every stage of my career, and they each had a major impact on the path I took. From seeking work in a lab as my first job during college to balancing motherhood with the demands of lab work, I have really benefited from seeing how other women have succeeded when faced with these same choices and challenges.”

In this direction, Suman Sharma, Director – Sustainable Antibiotics, Centrient Pharmaceuticals, feels that companies should work on mentoring programmes to facilitate interaction between the veterans and the newcomers.

However, there is a severe lack of female role models/mentors and this may reflect on how poorly the industry is able to retain its female workforce, even at the entry-level. Smita Holey, Associate Vice President – International Business, Cadila Pharmaceuticals notes that fewer women in managerial positions may result in lack of strong network, ultimately causing drop-out of accomplished women professionals from their roles. She explains, “Having more women in the leadership position will create a safe platform for women professionals, reducing the number of dropouts of accomplished women from the chain. When the change is slow, women feel unheard and undervalued and hence they seek other opportunities. Working on the societal construct as well as grooming the women workforce can help put more women leaders in the pharma industry ultimately leading to more pharma women leaders. Companies nowadays are making conscious efforts to highlight their women leaders on platforms such as in media, conferences, business meetings etc. providing a platform for their growth. Such initiatives act as a strong communication point in encouraging future generations.” She further pointed out that women are not represented at higher levels and hence, their competencies and strengths go largely unrecognised. Also, she feels that the kind of value that can be added to teams due to the presence of women is undervalued.

All in all, the presence of women leaders as role models can act as a direct intervention to develop future women leaders. This directly affects ladies joining the industry at the entry-level and helps them prepare for the trek up the ladder.

Recognise, recruit and retain
Responsibilities at home can easily clash with work, and more than often, women are compelled to give up the latter. Organisations need to recognise these factors and customise strategies, developing benefits and programmes that help women manage their family and professional responsibilities by offering flexibility. Companies can experiment with different work models like having a contingent workforce, hiring part-time workers and consultant contracts.

Resuming work after childbirth is another factor that puts women in a fix. “Most women give up work at some point of time due inability to cope with the situation of dual responsibility,” Nakhare observes. Extension of maternity leaves from three months to six months, she believes, may have helped women to better adjust to motherhood. However, organisations can go a little more steps further to help a female employee resume career after childbirth. Talking about how something as simple as opening up a crèche can help tremendously, Nakhare recollects about her time at Lupin and says, “The biggest boon in Lupin was the crèche facility. These were the years when we started our family. I could take my child with me to work. Having my child close to me was the priority and I was the first staff member to begin using the crèche. I availed of this facility for both my children till they turned three.”

Evolving with time
In order to bridge the gender gap that exists in the pharma industry, companies need to actively create a culture that actively advocates diversity and inclusion. A few organisations have already stepped up, showing initiative to address the issue. Recently, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories was in news for retaining its spot for the third consecutive year in Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index (GEI). The GEI tracks the financial performance of public companies committed to supporting gender equality through policy development, representation, and transparency. The reference index measures gender equality across five pillars: female leadership and talent pipeline, equal pay and gender pay parity, inclusive culture, sexual harassment policies, and pro-women brand.

Dr Reddy’s Laboratories launched the ‘SHE story – Increasing women in sales’ as a part which 50 women returning from career breaks were given part-time contract roles as Special Hospital Executives (SHE’s). They focussed on building relationships with junior doctors while covering one major hospital/ medical institute. Today, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories has more than 100 SHE team members. “Despite challenges, they delivered on their targets and expanded our customer base pan India,” Bhaskar informs. To increase the number of women in manufacturing, the company became legally compliant to deploy women in API production as well as in night shifts in plants and redesigned the shifts to make it a five-day work week in our Biosimilar plant.

Dr Reddy’s Laboratories also hosts a ‘Post Maternity Buddy Program’ – under which maternity counselling services are provided to all women employees along with access to a ‘buddy mothers’ programme wherein mothers can reach out to ‘buddies’ within the company that can help them with their doubts and queries around pregnancy. The
company has also launched a mid-management leaders programme called Chrysalis, to strengthen the pipeline of women leaders.

Cadila Pharmaceuticals also has taken positive steps to promote more gender diversity among its ranks. Believing that one of the best ways to develop women leaders from a young age is to expose them to various aspects of the pharma industry and help them explore opportunities within the organisations, the administration at Cadila has come up with a variety of policies like flexible work timings and highlighting women role models. In the year 2019, for its young leaders’ programme, Cadila maintained the gender diversity by hiring 50 per cent women professionals for roles in management, research and engineering. “We also focus on hiring women for higher positions. Selected women employees in the organisation are put on an accelerated growth path to help them assume leadership positions in the near future,” a company administration representative states. The company also maintains a blog which features its women leaders frequently as a mode of inspiration for the young and upcoming.

Even government scientific bodies are shifting gears to boost gender equality among their workforce. Dr Swarup shares, “Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has made a concerted effort to encourage the participation of Young Women in Science and Technology. There are numerous opportunities for young women. BioCARE is one such scheme which allows women researchers both employed and unemployed to take up research. We also have special awards to recognise the excellence in research and innovation by women scientists – Janaki Ammal-National Women Bioscientist Award. DBT through its Public Sector Enterprise Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) also supports women entrepreneurs. We have three incubators which specially focus on women entrepreneurs and nearly 10 per cent – 15 per cent startups supporting are women. We also have a WiNER a special Startup Challenge for women entrepreneurs to help them to take entrepreneurship research forward and create enterprises.”

Knocking on the glass ceiling
“There is no reason to believe that pharma is not suitable for women. It might be the case that when the industry was established, women didn’t have the opportunity to work in otherwise stereotyped industries such as pharma. Today, I see more and more women making their mark in these industries and breaking the conventional norms. With continued efforts, there will come a time when women will have equal representation in the workforce in pharma,” says Holey, identifying the positive transformations happening in the Indian pharma industry. It looks like the Indian pharma industry is gearing up to transform into a more gender-neutral sector with more and more women taking up leadership roles. And as Shenoy points out, “There is plenty of room on the top!”

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