[Insight] How to succeed as a woman in Pharma

In honor of International Women’s Day, we have curated three pieces of advice to help you elevate your career in the pharmaceutical sector

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Although prospects are improving; it is undeniable that women face a number of challenges in the workplace. These range from limited access to career advancement, gender pay gaps, “old boys’ clubs”, the “mom” effect, unconscious bias and instances of sexual harassment.

There is also a distinct lack, in many fields, of women in senior management positions or at the board level. For those who do have women in corporate leadership and director positions, they can expect increased revenue performance. A Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies found that those with 3+ female directors outperformed those with no women on their boards, achieving 42% return on sales, 66% return on invested capital and 53% return on equity.

To enact change in the future, more women need to come forward as future leaders in their field. In this article, we want to share three steps you can take to increase your chances of success.


Put effort into the growth of your strategic and support network

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor of organizational behavior, noted that when it comes to networking, people “are [often] daunted by the task and believe it requires inauthentic, uncomfortable behavior and is an activity that is inconsistent with focusing on job performance”.

However, networking is essential to both accomplishing your career goals and impacting change both inside and outside your organization.

Too often women are not intentional enough with the networks they create and hold themselves back from opportunities to reach out beyond their networks. This can then hold back progression. There are three valuable networks each woman should look to build to add value to her career:

  • A support network
  • An external network
  • An internal network

A support network is a trusted set of confidants who women can go to for advice. This can include your colleagues, a former boss, a group of friends or a coach. This group should help you assess your opportunities, find what motivates and drives you and support you through transitional periods.

Your external network should be an intentional effort to build relationships with new people beyond your normal network. These people should encompass different disciplines, different industries and different levels of seniority. These are the group who can open you up to new experiences and opportunities you may not consider.

Your internal network can be most important for the position you are currently in. These are the people within your workplace who can offer insight on how you can advance, where you need to build further skills and what initiative/projects you should get involved in. They can also become future sponsors if you are seeking advancement in the company.

When it comes to networking, one area where men excel is being open about their goals. Although your relationships should not be transactional, it is important to share what you are looking to do so that others can offer help and guidance. You can also provide additional value to new and current connections yourself by linking them up to relevant contacts or sharing useful information.


Don’t wait for opportunities to advance your career

In research by Harvard Business Review to benchmark the career paths of male CEOs against female CEOs, it was found that women worked, on average, four years more than men before becoming CEOs. They were also more likely to work in a higher number of roles, functions, companies and industries, bringing that diversity of experience to the role.

One respondent to the research believes this delay is in no small part because women “have to prove themselves 10 times over before they’re actually given the opportunity, so their development takes longer”.

The research also found that two thirds of the female CEOs involved didn’t realize they could be a CEO until someone else told them. They were far more focused on driving results than on their own success.

This is a crucial issue seen across a number of industries. Women are far less likely to reach out for the opportunities they want, especially at a higher level.

However, as Maria Castanon Moats, Chief Diversity Officer of PwC highlights “self-promotion is rarely easy, but it is crucial to success. We can’t assume that the people around us understand our talents or know what we’re capable of achieving”.

Unconscious bias is an unfortunate component of many workplaces, with women, and especially women from diverse backgrounds, not being the natural choice for advancement or positions of responsibility. Research from YouGov found that while 59% of men had been given the opportunity to lead projects, only 44% of women had received the same opportunity.

In light of this, it is vital that women start to assert their value in the workplace and seek out the opportunities. Waiting to be handed a role or opportunity only puts the control for your growth in the hands of other people. Proactively seeking out ways to expand your capabilities and showcase your aptitude for leadership and management will lead to far greater success.


Don’t forget to build up your soft skills

While cultivating strong technical skills are essential for success in your role, to reach the higher levels of management emphasis must also be given to soft skills.

Understanding how to lead during difficult situations, effectively communicate and resolve conflict can be key differentiating factors for your success.

Many studience have shown that women often face a “glass cliff”, where they are more likely  to be selected for senior leadership positions when the role is associated with a state of crisis or a high risk of failure. This can offer vital experience and build substantial credibility, but it can also be a high risk venture if unsuccessful. In these situations, soft skills will be far more significant than technical ability. 

In Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey, 92% of respondents listed soft skills as a ‘critical priority’. This is in no small part because building co-operative relationships, responding effectively to conflicting priorities and working with diverse groups are critical components to succeeding in business.

Having studies thousands of leaders, Gallup recommends four areas to focus your attention when building soft skills. They advise the prioritization of skills related to; executing, influencing, releationship building and strategic thinking. 

While McKinsey's Leadership Project also highlights the importance of "centered leadership", which encompasses the ability to manage energy, engage other and positively frame actions and outcomes. 

Wherever you decide to focus your attention will depend upon your baseline of skills and the opportunities for training or mentorship. This is an area where your network can guide and advise you. It is also important to be assertive in terms of finding avenues where you can build these skills



Harvard Business Review found that there were three traits common to the female CEOs they interviewed. They were courageous, unafraid to take risks and resilient in the face of challenges.

There are no quick wins to long term career success. But by cultivating those traits, building your network, putting yourself forward for opportunities and improving your soft skills, you will be primed for future success.

“Success is the culmination of a series of controlled failures”