How to Climb the Ladder in Red High Heels


I am not a feminist in a traditional meaning. I like to think of myself as a woman supporting other women. I also do not believe that all men are misogynistic (a characteristic often associated with NPD).  I admit I met some passive-aggressive male colleagues who were not buying into the gender diversity concept if I can put this delicately. Research shows such men often suffer from certain psychological problems, but I am not going to focus on those aspects today. During my career, I certainly have been lucky enough to deal with many great, supportive and smart men who treat women as equals.

That being said, being a woman in the pharma business may not be easy, especially for those who wish to rise to the top. Looking at the C-suit level positions and company boards, in the biotech industry, it is hard to not notice they are men-dominated, similarly to the technology industry. From my experience, big public pharmaceutical companies seem to adopt more gender-diverse solutions, and they perform here much better than the smaller pharma & biotech companies.

Why is that? Why we have still that gender diversity issue in XXI century? Several underlying issues may be part of the reason why women are not broadly represented on companies’ boards. Here are some of my (subjective) thoughts and observations.

  1. History:

History of women in patriarchal society makes one of the main reasons. Women were denied the right to education for too long. Sure we are catching up nicely. However, women presence in science and research has been scant for a very long time. You still can hear opinions that there are no brilliant minds among women scientist and Nobel awards winners are almost always men, etc. Whether this is because men are innately better at science and/or if women are socially conditioned not to be science superstars remains an open question. I offer an interesting read on the analysis of SAT (standardized test is generally given to high-school students as a part of the university admissions process). Per the author, recent results in the US are encouraging for women. If the trend continues, we will soon see gender parity among math stars, making it easy to imagine that in a few decades we’ll have just as many Nobel prize-winning women as men in STEM fields.

  1. Self-elimination

There is undeniably some smart and science educated women that choose to focus on families rather than their own careers. Females also often want non-research related jobs as they are attracted to jobs that also made use of their equally strong communication skills. This is a matter of life choice, but it may account for the lower number of female directors or C-level executives in pharma/biotech.

  1. Actual gender discrimination

I heard personally the opinion that women are better suited to the operational jobs and men are strategists by nature. Well, even Margaret Tacher said: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” While that quote is correct to some extent when taken out of the context, actually may hurt women. Women can be top strategists and business leaders, they are not only “doers.”  My other observation, maybe a “gorilla in a room” is that women executives can be discriminatory, highly competitive and unsupportive towards other women too.

When it comes to promotions and career advancement, the industry independent research proved already, that men are promoted based on their potential to succeed in a new role, while women almost always have to prove their skills before any promotion is considered.

Another public issue is getting a financial backup from investors for the female-led start-up businesses numbers are low but also have to account for the fact that many women starting their own companies back up their own businesses with private money.

There is also an underlying broad social phenomenon of women discrimination, which is non-industry specific. Let’s take an obvious example of Hillary Clinton who failed her attempt to become the first US female president. Let’s also notice two things: during political debates women showing same aggressive argumentation as a male counter candidate are seen as an ill-mannered aggressor.  This is a proof of double standard. If women actually voted for Hillary, she would win. But they did not, 42 percent of women, came out to support Trump.

So what should be done now to change that unfortunate status quo?

There are some attempts in EU and now in the USA to take measures to increase the gender diversity of their corporate boards and adopt a quota for the female board members.

Is that a good idea? This is a double-edged sword in my opinion.

I am personally against that proposal, and I agree with the author of the article, such a rule may lead to more damage than good. The gender equality can not be forced by regulations, especially that gender discrimination topic is pretty fluid and elusive, depending on how and who is looking at it. Do not get me wrong, I realize that gender discrimination exists, but it is a complex subject with more than one root cause.

For example, if discrimination was such a big problem, why there are even women CEOs in men dominated world such as technology? Excellent list of examples here.

To me, we can continue fighting that problem by making sure that women are equally educated, ambitious, have same expertise and skills as men. We should never give up and chase our ambitions and plans. If we can not be successful one way, we can always find another way.

By using quotas rules, women fall automatically into second category citizen bucket that needs special rules. This is self-depreciation and self-discrimination. Thus I am against those rules. That statement comes from a woman that wishes to seat on the board some day.

What is the silver lining (because there is one!)?

Gender stereotypes make any career uneasy but not impossible. There are precedences of very successful C-suit level female executives.

To me, whatever comes easy, I tend to appreciate it less. Challenges make things and life interesting, so I am looking at the glass half full here.

The frustration of female leaders directs them towards entrepreneurship and starting successful biotech businesses, building further the confidence on their competencies and diminishing the gender bias even further.

Those women are excellent examples for the next generations of female leaders from generation Y and Z. So yes, there is a light in that tunnel, ultimately.

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