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The life of Alice Keller – one of the first female pharma execs

This month in 1896: Birth of Alice Keller who became one of the first female execs in the pharma indsutry during her time at Roche

1896 Birth of Alice Keller – one of the first female pharma execsTake a look at the CEOs of the top pharma companies in the world and you'll find more than a few things in common.

They certainly all share a great knowledge of the industry, a good education and hopefully a passion for healthcare. But another thing that unites them is that they are all men.

Sheri McCoy, the former head of J&J's pharmaceutical and consumer health operations may have been narrowly pipped to the post by Alex Gorsky when the board of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was deciding its replacement for Bill Weldon as CEO, but no woman has broken through that glass ceiling yet.

As seen by McCoy's later appointment as CEO of beauty company Avon, women have made it to the top in other industries, with the likes of Hewlett Packard, IBM, PepsiCo and DuPont all having female CEOs.

Despite pharma not quite matching other industries in this regard, there are a number of high ranking women that, like McCoy, have been tipped for the top job at some point, including Amgen's chief of compliance Anna Richo, Mylan's president Heather Bresch and Pfizer's chief medical officer Freda Lewis-Hall.

However, one of the very first to women to climb to the senior ranks of a pharma company was born more than a century ago on April 18, 1896 in Basel, Switzerland.

Alice Keller was 18 when she went to the University of Basel to study macroeconomics, finishing her studies in the early 1920s.

After completing a doctorate analysing the alcohol business, in 1925 she joined Basel-based Roche – then a 29-year-old pharma company with burgeoning international interests in the US, Europe and Japan.

It was in this latter region that Keller would make her name, quickly rising through the ranks at Roche and being installed as head of Roche Japan in 1926, one year after the subsidiary was launched and 27 years after Roche established its first sales reps in the country. 

By Roche's account on its corporate history, Keller begins her time in Tokyo as a “kind of girl Friday, handling the correspondence with Basel, revising texts and doing some of the billing and costing”.

It may not sound the most interesting role, but it was one that signified a real change in pharma's attitude to women in senior roles.

It was one Keller enjoyed too, writing in her diary: “I liked it in Japan from the beginning. The people were friendly, the country I found beautiful.”

By all accounts, Keller excelled in the role and in 1929 she was promoted to become Roche's first woman senior executive – “a sensational achievement for the times”, according to Roche on its corporate history site.

Troubled times were looming though and in 1939 – shortly ahead of the outbreak of World War II – Keller returned to Basel to work for Roche in Europe. She stayed with the company for another 14 years, before retiring in 1952. 

During her time at Roche, she built a reputation as someone who thought that products made it to market only because employees had an “intrinsic belief in their own work and challenged management decision”, according to Alexander Bieri, the curator of the Roche Historical Collection and Archive.

In addition to her professional role, Keller was also a keen photographer and left several works to this archive before she passed away in 1992 at the age of 96.

Keller was an early pioneer for women in pharma, and helped changed the attitudes of many about what a female could bring to the industry.

As noted by the ongoing lack of a female CEO at one of the top firms, there is still work to do, however, while some commentators, including Denise Deman, CEO of Bench International, have noted that women with careers in academic medicine earn significantly less than men.

The evidence for the positives of diversity in the boardroom is constantly mounting up too, with Credit Suisse Research Institute noting in an analysis of 2,400 companies over the past six years, those with women on the board have fared better during the economic crisis than those with none.

It's a point acknowledged by some companies, including J&J, which has made diversity a central part of its culture, acknowledging its importance in the company's credo.

Perhaps unsurprisingly as the company that helped Alice Keller to excel, Roche too is encouraging a diverse approach to its staff, with women holding 40 per cent of the company's management roles.

Keller would surely agree with the company's current ethos: “Creativity, better decision-making and problem-solving ability are often driven by the different and sometimes conflicting approaches, perspectives, ideas and experiences of the people working within a company.

“An inclusive environment enables these differing views to be exchanged openly and is the key to driving the innovation that leads to promising new medicines.”

Article by
Tom Meek

web editor at PMLiVE

19th April 2013

From: Sales

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