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Feminine flourish

Attracting and retaining more women at board level makes good business sense
A chain of paper peopleWhen I complain about something, my friend Lisa says: So what are you going to do differently? Generally, spurred by her encouragement (and my desire for improvement), I change my behaviour or my circumstances and do something differently. However, sometimes I choose to maintain the status quo, preferring familiarity and comfort more than the struggle for change. I suppose the risk-benefit ratio isn't always compelling. When it comes to attracting and retaining more women in our industry, and ensuring their ascendance to the highest levels of an organisation, a key 'reason to believe' is the impact on the bottom line.

According to a report by Catalyst, female board representation leads to a healthier financial state through:

  • Return on equity: On average, firms with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53 per cent
  • Return on sales: On average, firms with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 42 per cent
  • Return on invested capital: On average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 66 per cent

I am getting a little bit ahead of myself by talking about female board directors when - according to most recent published reports - despite the occasional female CEO or business unit director.

"Women do not have a terribly strong presence in middle or senior management anywhere in the world, including Europe"

The HBA Empowerment, Diversity, Growth and Excellence in Leadership Study (EDGE) is the first benchmark report of best practices in recruiting, advancement, and retention of women in the top ranks of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Results were drawn from 19 of the top 50 pharma and biotech companies in the US and Europe and indicate that women hold 17 per cent of senior management positions and 34 per cent of middle management positions in life science companies. Perhaps more disheartening than this is the fact that the figures have remained unchanged for the past five years. This may be because women entered the business world relatively recently compared to men or it could be, more importantly, because the leaders of our industry have not heard an appropriately convincing risk-benefit ratio argument to prompt them to do things differently.

So, what is the business case for attracting, developing, and retaining women in the pharma industry? Besides the financial advantages - all senior managers have a vested interest in a healthy stock price - the key to the success of any marketing strategy is knowing and understanding the target audience. In this case it is made up of a large proportion of females who are key influencers:

  • Women are generally acknowledged to be the chief decision-makers on healthcare in our society
  • An increasing percentage (in some cases more than 50 per cent) of medical school attendees are women.

Marketing may not be rocket science, but innovation is the lifeblood of our industry. Without new products, new programmes, new ways of reaching our customers we are doomed. 

As the editor's comment said in the November/December 2007 issue of PME (page 7), ...pharma is under increasing pressure to get the best returns possible from any marketing opportunities it [has].

As women play such a pivotal role in the choice and/or advocacy of brands, the more we understand and reach those who can influence the success of our business in an innovative manner, the more we will optimise our marketing resources. After all, how many times are we pressed to expend the bulk of our resources reaching the key opinion leaders (KOLs) and prescribers rather than the 'secondary' segments of our target audience?

In the tough talent market, firms need the best marketing strategies to attract and retain today's and tomorrow's stars. Although an individual approach is needed according to a company's corporate culture and current status, the EDGE study identified six best practices to attract and retain top talent:

  • Unambiguous senior leadership support for the advancement of women
  • Merit-based culture to ensure advancement regardless of gender
  • Programme metrics to track progress and evaluate success
  • Recruiting efforts that include a diverse team and diversity targets
  • Leadership development programmes customised to individual needs
  • Career and work flexibility models to retain top talent.

In the tough talent market, firms need the best marketing strategies to attract and retain today's and tomorrow's stars

Each practice may seem straightforward but the challenge lies in commitment and execution.

Women are seeking ways to develop their leadership agenda, through formal and informal mentoring programmes, by networking with other colleagues at other companies, and by seeking employment with companies that are innovators and will reward their efforts. The Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) is one external organisation helping women to develop their leadership agenda and helping companies identify and cultivate their 'rising stars'.

However, without visible senior management support and the right tools in place, progress will be slower than it should be and companies will suffer both tangibly and intangibly. To use a familiar marketing term, we need a 'push-pull' strategy to make a real difference.

Those companies that are making serious and sustained efforts to encourage women to succeed already understand that the risk-benefit ratio works in favour of innovation. They will gain a competitive advantage by creating an environment where each employee can fulfill his or her potential, foster a better understanding of customer needs, and become the employer of choice.

The 'company man', who took a job after university and stayed there until he retired, has in large part been replaced by employees who feel that their company must show that they deserve them, rather than vice-versa. They feel free - in fact, almost compelled - to move to a competitor in order to advance if their companies don't recognise and cultivate their potential.

In the pharmaceutical industry the pressure for optimum performance is constant, and the winners will be those companies who understand that when in comes to attracting, developing, and retaining more women, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

The Author
Helen Clarkson is the director of client services at Sudler & Hennessey International. She is also director of external relations for the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association in Europe. The views expressed here are personal and should not be attributed to either organisation. For more information about the HBA and the EDGE (Empowerment, Diversity, Growth and Excellence) in Leadership Study, please www.hbanet.org

26th March 2008

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