From lab to leadership: Women leading the way in Life Sciences


Women’s talents and skills are vitally important in the workplace, with research consistently showing they make invaluable contributions to strategic decision-making, increasing emotional commitment, and pushing teams to achieve success. Yet in so many industries, women are underrepresented in senior roles. 

This article looks at how the life sciences sector fares in terms of gender equality, and outlines the top three areas that recent research and some key female leaders in the industry suggest to redress the balance.

Current landscape

Traditionally, life sciences have outperformed most other sectors in attracting women to its workforce. In last year’s Women in Business report, Grant Thornton reported that healthcare had the highest proportion of women in senior management (39%) of the 15 industries surveyed. It was also recently reported that the percentage of women working in R&D has remained at the same level (again, 39%) for the past 10 years. 

In another recent report, Women in Leadership in Life Sciences 2023 conducted by our friends, Meet Recruitment who surveyed more than 4,600 life sciences workers around the world it states that just over a third (36%) of C-suite positions are held by women, despite the overall workforce’s even gender split. 

More than 40% of respondents said they believe men still have the upper hand though with regard to career development opportunities such as promotions and raises. And a survey found that, out of 132 privately held and publicly listed Med Tech, Biotech, and Pharma companies in the UK, 41% have boards entirely made up of men. So there is still a way to go before women are equally represented in life sciences leadership. 

It’s no surprise then that women are 1.5 times more likely to move to a company committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, and 88% consider diversity an essential factor when considering new employment.

Winning the battle for top female talent

In Nov 2023, Fierce Pharma compiled a list of the 10 fiercest women in life sciences. Each female leader, chosen from over 250 nominations, is making waves in the industry and changing the face of leadership in life sciences. There are a number of these lists and the women who appear on them are truly impressive and inspirational.

Below are the top three areas, both highlighted in industry reports and cited in interviews with some of these female leaders, that have the potential to encourage more women into leadership positions within life sciences. 

1. Flexibility 

According to the Women in Leadership report, a huge 95% of women believe that flexibility around their work and home life is important. For those working in laboratories, it’s often necessary to be on-site, but flexibility can be offered elsewhere, such as adjusting working hours to allow time for other priorities alongside their careers. 

Offering flexibility leads to a more productive environment. Deloitte’s Global Life Sciences Outlook reports that employee engagement, directly correlated with productivity, is at its highest among workers who spend 60-80% of their time working remotely. Only one in ten women want to work the majority of their week on-site, with a large portion of women citing remote or hybrid working environments as one of their top reasons for joining or staying with an organization. 

Lynelle Hoch, President of the Cell Therapy organization within Bristol Myers Squibb champions the importance of true work-life balance, with four children of her own, and is quoted as saying that it’s incredibly important for women to know they can have a successful career and enjoy their personal life without feeling guilty. 

2. Mentoring programmes

For women to succeed in leadership roles, they must have access to mentors in the industry they can learn from to help them gain opportunities, skills, and the confidence they need to be successful. 

Dr Ulla Grove Krogsgaard Thomsen joined Novo Nordisk in 1997 and has been CEO of Novo Nordisk Pharmatech since 2021. She is a prominent member of Women in Life Science Denmark, which offers business networking support and mentorship, inspiring and equipping women to take executive leadership positions.

Dr Christina Mack, chief scientific officer of IQVIA Real World Solutions is also quoted to advocate the power of mentoring, having benefited from mentorship in her own career, and having mentored many women within IQVIA’s Women Inspiration Network programme, and through the NCI/NIH diversity programme.

3. Safe spaces

If women are given a chance to develop in leadership programs, a safe space for experimentation, learning, and community is created. 

There are already some initiatives and programs to help women advance in life sciences, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), which offers leadership development programs and the Society For Women’s Health Research, which hosts networking and educational events. 

Providing a compassionate and nurturing community for women helps them develop the skills and connections to succeed in leadership roles. 

Dr Natalie Kenny, Founder and CEO of BioGrad is quoted as saying about her diverse workforce at BioGrad “Wherever I look I see strong female role models, whether that be in our senior leadership team, our labs or in the classroom.” Dr Kelly recently opened a space for female-led science and tech SMEs as part of her aim to support women throughout the North West and beyond.

A diverse future for life sciences?

The benefits of successfully establishing a gender-diverse leadership team are undeniable. Encouraging promising young women to explore careers in STEM fields, fostering their development internally through mentoring programmes, offering flexibility, and providing career advancement opportunities, will ensure life sciences companies develop the very best team and maximize revenue by leveraging different perspectives, expertise, and experience.

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