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Why female mentorship is so powerful in pharma

Mentoring is a powerful force that can make a difference in the workplace

One of the joys of mentoring is never knowing what’s going to show up in my email inbox.

I’ve been a formal and informal mentor to countless women and men throughout my career, and I’m continually surprised when I learn how a certain piece of advice or a listening ear influenced someone’s life.

One woman recently told me I had inspired her to take a chance and go into the pharmaceutical industry 12 years ago. Today she helps run clinical trials. A male colleague who had worried about accepting an international assignment out of concern for his family shared that it ended up being an enriching experience for everyone. ‘You were the reason we went to Singapore,’ he wrote to me, ‘and I’ll never forget that.’

Mentorship, by any other name, is simply sharing knowledge or being an empathetic, caring human being. But when done purposefully, it’s a powerful force that can make a difference in the workplace, especially in the relatively small field of pharma.

This is an industry where personal relationships influence how people move up the ladder and change therapy areas and companies. Mentorship provides the structure and space to foster those connections that pay off throughout their careers.

Research shows that corporate mentorship programmes lead to more satisfied employees who perform better, feel more positive about their work environment and stay at their companies longer.

And mentorship – whether it’s sponsored through a company or found through casual networks – is a vital component in championing women and changing the fact that women account for less than one-third of C-suite positions and only 13% of CEOs.

Who you know

Female mentorship has been proven to be effective in encouraging more young women to go into STEM fields. One 2017 study of 11,500 women ages 11 to 30 that was conducted by Microsoft in 12 countries across Europe found that the lack of female role models in science and technology fields was a key reason they didn’t pursue them.

We can shape the next generation of female life science leaders by showing them what a woman in pharma looks like and personally sharing our experiences about how this field can be a satisfying career choice.

But role models matter just as much, once women have entered the industry. Women learn from each other why it’s worth pursuing certain career paths and leadership positions.

They hear about other women’s experiences moving across the world for a tour of duty, taking stretch assignments, going back to school or planning maternity leave. We can be sounding boards, help solve problems or offer much-needed support by saying ‘this, too, shall pass’.

Creating connections

I’m often asked how to become a mentor or find one you can click with. Many people think the most common mentor relationships are between senior and junior colleagues. In the best scenarios, those formal set-ups evolve over time into genuine friendships.

But I’ve also found it can be easier to create rewarding relationships within your own informal peer groups. It’s true that a problem shared is a problem halved. So, don’t forget the power of your own social and professional networks. They’re the people you might feel more comfortable reaching out to for regular encouragement or support.

They help you keep your ear to the ground for job opportunities and can share frank insights about a specific company’s culture. Some people prefer to develop these relationships one-on-one, but I’ve also had wonderful experiences participating in mentorship circles.

Set up like a monthly book club in people’s homes – or even over Zoom these days – these kinds of gatherings are refreshingly relaxed and social.

It’s where you might trade advice on how to handle a difficult conversation at work or ask for babysitter referrals. Such groups also increase your chances of meeting someone you have natural chemistry with. And of course, you’re one introduction away from a mentoring relationship leading to another.

Being intentional

Other avenues include university clubs, alumni groups or professional organisations. They might offer networking events or mentor matching programmes, which might be preferable for people who aren’t naturally assertive.

However, I find meetings or conferences to be particularly useful for making new connections across the pharma industry. I usually have a goal of meeting two to three new people and research in advance who will be giving lectures or participating in panels and try to meet them afterwards or seek them out at happy hours.

Or I wander around exhibition booths and serendipitously chat to people. It’s important to meet a wide range of people and not just those you think might be immediately helpful to your career. You never know what you might learn.

Meeting mentors in a COVID-19 world

Like many people, I miss going to in-person meetings. But I’ve tried to use this last year to catch up with the people I already know in my network. I’m really active on LinkedIn and follow who might have moved jobs and congratulate them. I’m also mindful to read the messages I receive.

I try to respond to them all – even a new contact asking for advice about ‘mom guilt’ – and not just those from senior leaders. Being a mentor involves sharing your expertise with people at all levels of their career. I’m also open to exploring virtual opportunities, even if it’s just a quick Zoom chat.

Engaging male mentors and mentees

Although I believe that women sharing their experiences with other women is a critical strategy to inspiring new leaders and helping us all advance, it’s equally important to foster mentoring relationships with male colleagues.

I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations about gender norms, but in my experience, I’ve found that women tend to venture into intimate conversations rather quickly and talk about work-life balance and challenges of being a working mom. Men might be more direct and cut to the chase, saying ‘How can I help? What do you want? Let’s discuss that’.

It’s great to have both perspectives and I’m particularly grateful to several male mentors who have given me useful insights that have shaped my professional life. In my favourite example, one male senior leader pushed me to seek a non-traditional route early in my career.

At the time, I was set on pursuing a vice president role in the commercial division and balked at his suggestion to join the corporate venture group in which I would work with MIT scientists on an artificial kidney project. His advice was spot on and that experience made me a better leader and opened up new doors. In return, I find it rewarding to mentor male colleagues.

I like breaking stereotypes they have about female leaders, but I can also offer a valuable perspective they might not have considered. I’m touched how the stresses around COVID-19 have forced both men and women to think more about making career moves that allow them to be more present for their families.

Several men have told me they found it helpful to have a woman’s ear, and it’s rewarding to know I’m helping them be more deliberate about thinking though this part of their lives.

Cultivating a mentorship state of mind

As a concept, I’m glad to see that mentorship is getting more attention and that companies and organisations are increasingly recognising its value in fostering personal satisfaction and professional advancement. In my own life, however, I’ve witnessed its definition became hazy; a mentor is also a peer, colleague, friend – or simply an inspiration.

What they all have in common is that they share what I call a mentoring mindset. Mentors give generously of their time and expect nothing in return. They make a habit of cultivating broad networks and reaching out to people to share job leads or a bit of support. They sit across a café table or a computer screen and offer themselves, saying ‘I’m here for you, how can I help’.

It feels good to be part of this vibrant pharma ecosystem and help each other move forward. You never know how such a gift will be returned – in the form of a grateful email, an exciting new opportunity that a contact is now pursuing or your own next job recommendation.

Catherine Owen (pictured) is Senior Vice President of Major Markets at Bristol Myers Squibb

27th April 2021

Catherine Owen (pictured) is Senior Vice President of Major Markets at Bristol Myers Squibb

27th April 2021

From: Marketing

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