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Advancing women in healthcare

Fostering the next generation of leaders

L-R Joanne Hackett, Rachel Scott, Priya Agrawal

The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) honoured its Woman of the Year with a gala event in New York in early May, while a gathering took place simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic in London.

Both events celebrated the achievements of some remarkable women in healthcare – but those inspiring individuals also made it clear that there’s lots more to do in advancing women and the wider cause of diversity.

Taking on the mantle of HBA’s Woman of the Year 2018 is Julie Gerberding, Merck & Co’s chief patient officer, and head of global public policy and population health. She has had a long and distinguished career serving patients, training first as an infectious disease doctor, and then expanding her horizons continually to become one of the world’s most influential public health leaders.

Explaining how she has approached her career, she naturally makes a link with the micro-organisms she has studied – and battled – over the decades.

“When it came to my career, I learnt to think like bacteria. They divide and grow, frolic around and enjoy themselves until they run out of nutrition – then they hit what’s called the stationary phase, and growth stops,” she says.

A period of growth for bacteria is known as ‘log phase’ – and Julie urged her audience to always aim for this.

“You have to either freshen the media or give the bacteria a bigger environment if you want them to keep growing. It’s the same for me – I made the decision to stay in log phase.”

Gerberding’s talent as a doctor and a public health leader first became apparent while working at the frontline of the HIV/AIDs crisis in the 1980s, to leading the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and overseeing a restructuring of the government agency’s multibillion dollar budget and 10,000 employees.

She joined Merck & Co in 2009 and sees her role in promoting vaccines and facilitating greater access to them in all parts of the world as an extension of this same initial impulse to help a patient – only this time it is millions of patients, rather than just one at a time.

She is especially proud of working to reduce the manufacturing costs of vaccines for diseases like human papillomavirus (HPV) and rotavirus, with the aim of these being more widely available in developing countries.

Growing up in small town South Dakota, her parents brought her up to see no barriers in life, regardless of gender or background. She says she is committed to helping other women advance, and to promoting the idea of ‘horizontal leadership’ which is “more about learning than knowing” and not a winner-takes-all mentality.

“It’s difficult to find that kind of leader – but more often than not when you do, that leader is a woman.”

She concluded that women actively encouraging other women around the world was a “powerful accelerant” for positive change.

“Please keep learning – stay in log phase in the biggest beaker you can imagine…. together we will create a better, healthier future for all.”

Paying it forward

This theme was picked up in the HBA’s meeting in London, with a roundtable of women healthcare leaders hosted at Syneos Health by the President of Syneos Health Communications Europe, Julie Adrian.

While the four panellists all have different stories to tell, one consistent theme which emerged was the need to have a good mentor – male or female – and for women to ‘pay it forward’ to other women in need of guidance and moral support.

Joanne Hackett is Chief Commercial Officer at Genomics England and is charged with creating alliances with life sciences firms and her organisation, which is a world leader in turning the vision of genomics-based healthcare into a reality.

As a tissue engineer who became an entrepreneur, Joanne says taking risks and being bold didn’t come naturally at first.

“I didn’t learn any of this at university, I learnt from others who took the time to help me. Then I developed the courage to take a crazy idea and run with it.”

She said her most important mentor was a woman business associate who at first took advantage of her then-unassertive character.

Then one day she said to me: how much longer are you planning to let me take advantage of you? That really struck me – then she sat me down and helped me write my own business plan – and from that moment on she didn’t ask for anything in return.”

Rachel Scott is a partner at PA, and helps life sciences companies adapt and manage change in their businesses.

She says women so often have to juggle their career advancement and motherhood – but need to challenge themselves if they’re only staying with a company because of a good maternity leave policy.

“You always need to push yourself, and do something scary to take yourself out of the comfort zone.”

She says experience has also taught her that you don’t need to ‘fit in’ too much to a male-dominated environment.

“I have noticed a tendency for women to shift their personalities in a male environment. But if you can be yourself at work, people can see you are authentic and trust in your leadership.”

Professor Melissa Hanna-Brown is Associate Research Fellow at Pfizer UK. Her job involves helping Pfizer’s research and development teams adopt new technology – something which in reality is more of a people-focused role than a tech-focused role.

“Coming from an academic background and being a natural introvert, I was suddenly forced to talk a lot more than I was used to. But you have to do a lot of talking and schedule a lot of meetings to get buy-in,” she says. “But once you have put all that groundwork in, getting people to come with you is much easier.”

There is one key skill in change management and leadership – often seen as a strength of women – which makes all the difference. “You need to listen to them, actually listen. Then you can take them through that change curve.”

Dr Priya Agrawal is Business Unit Director, Vaccines & Women’s Health at MSD. She trained as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, and then pursed her drive to help more people through public health and improving maternal health care, especially in developing nations.

This included setting up her own social enterprise in Africa, leveraging mobile phones to help ensure women had access to critical healthcare or products by empowering them with information through their phones.

The panellists also shared in common either a ‘relentless pursuit of purpose’ or a willingness to try and fail at something new.

“I see people who don’t do what they know is right, just because they’re worried about what would happen if it all goes wrong,” says Priya. “Once you feel like a leader, you can take bolder decisions.”

One book she recommended to everyone was ‘Drop the Ball – Achieving More By Doing Less’ by Tiffany Dufu, which speaks directly to women about not having to be perfect or take responsibility for everything.

All the speakers said they were active mentors of other women, and said it was their duty to ‘pay forward’ their lucky breaks. The flipside is the quote from former Secretary of State Madeline Allbright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Rachel concludes: “Mentoring women and girls is very important of course – but we have to help boys as well. I was so delighted the other day when my son came home from school and announced: ‘Mum, I’m a feminist!’”

There is undoubtedly more that employers and institutions can do to achieve the aim of gender parity, and the goal of true diversity in the workplace, with initiatives such as the UK’s gender pay gap disclosure helping to make this more transparent.

But individual efforts to challenge outdated attitudes and to nurture talent wherever you find it will also play a very significant role.

Andrew McConaghie is group editor at PMGroup

22nd June 2018

Andrew McConaghie is group editor at PMGroup

22nd June 2018

From: Healthcare

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