Is gender diversity a problem in Switzerland’s life sciences industry

Posting date: 27 August 2020

Unlike other industries, Switzerland’s healthcare and life sciences sector doesn’t have a gender diversity problem; it has a ‘women in leadership positions’ problem. This is an issue globally, with women making up less than 30% of executive directors at the top pharmaceutical firms worldwide. This is despite women making up 65% of the workforce and 80% of the buying and usage decisions, suggesting there is a clear gap between women entering the industry and progressing to its most senior roles. So why does healthcare and life sciences struggle to promote women to its leadership positions, and what more can be done to help?


A Swiss – and global - problem


Not only do women make up just 30% of C-suite teams, but they also account for only 13% of CEOs within the healthcare industry, according to research by Oliver Wyman. And women who do reach CEO level take three to five years longer than their male counterparts. Looking at Switzerland more specifically, we know that there are enormous obstacles for women who want to juggle a family with a career, with Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter declaring: “You cannot have everything: three children, a seat on the board and a career.” Switzerland’s family policies are conservative compared to many other European countries, with high childcare costs, a lack of paternity leave and few incentives for women to continue working after having children.


Progression within healthcare and life sciences


While female representation is lacking at the senior level of healthcare and life sciences, similar numbers of men and women enter the workforce with life sciences and medicine degrees. However, the further up the seniority chain you go, the more this representation dwindles, from 33% women in senior leadership positions to 29% at COO level. This prompts the question: where do all the women go in healthcare and life sciences?


Some organisations do appear to be addressing this issue. Some of the largest pharmaceuticals companies in the world have appointed female CEOs, including GSK, Biocon and Mylan. Meanwhile, women make up 40% of executive committee members at Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer, suggesting green shoots are starting to emerge for women at the top.


Why is gender diversity in life sciences so important?


Gender diversity is important in every industry, but especially within life sciences and healthcare. For companies to understand the needs of – and produce solutions for – a diverse patient population, they need to reflect this diversity themselves. This is particularly important within R&D. Women and girls bear a bigger burden of disease than men in low-income countries, with many diseases disproportionately or exclusively affecting women. Life science and healthcare companies that understand this and focus on gender diversity and inclusion have a greater chance of meeting those patients’ needs.


Within the pharmaceuticals industry, profitability relies on the ability to understand patients. This is demonstrated in the FTSE 350 companies with no women on their executive committee, who only achieve an average of 8.9% net profit margin. Compare this to the companies with 25% female representation at executive level, with average net profit margins of 13.9%, and you’ll see that gender diversity really does lead to better business results.


What can we do to improve the outlook for women in this industry?


We know that around as many women enter the industry with medical and life science qualifications as men – so how can we ensure they keep progressing within their field?


According to a Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey and Lean In, the most significant obstacle women face when trying to progress to senior leadership is the very first step up to management level. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 72 women are, which leaves more women remaining in entry level roles. And while many Swiss life sciences and healthcare firms are contributing to conversations around gender equality, what we need most is more action-driven change. According to the Women Count report, responsibility for this must start at the top down. CEOs should make diversity a business agenda, establishing hard targets for women in senior positions and providing transparent communications to the rest of the business – and industry - about this.


Informal mentorships are one of the best ways to promote women in this field, yet many organisations do not pay enough attention to mentorships and sponsorships. Firms that choose to make gender diversity a priority, by establishing clear, concrete goals and providing support and pathways for women, are likely to be the ones who benefit most.


How Swisslinx can help


As recruiters, we often see an imbalance of men and women applying for senior positions within healthcare and life sciences, particularly in Switzerland. Perhaps related to this, many of our clients are proactively looking for more diverse candidates. Women apply to 20% fewer jobs than men and are 16% less likely to apply to any given job, according to LinkedIn, with women feeling like they need to meet more of the criteria on a job ad than men. There’s clearly a disconnect when it comes to women believing they are qualified for senior level roles, and we’d like to help overcome this.


Diversity is important to us at Swisslinx – we're a 75% female team and understand the challenges women face in the Swiss workforce. If you’re considering your next job in healthcare and life sciences, or have a vacancy you’d like to fill, we can help. Find out about our client services or view our latest healthcare and life sciences jobs to get started.

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