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A Discussion on the Pandemic and Gender Parity

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

Interview with Dr Sandra Horning (2020-2021 Woman of the Year, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association) and Alvine Tremoulet (Global Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Pfizer, and HBA Gender Parity Collaborative Leader)

The fallout of the pandemic is vast, and has even extended to the realm of gender parity. We speak to two industry thought leaders to find out how the pharmaceutical industry is harnessing the crisis to advance rather than derail their mission to improve female representation across the sector.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and impacted areas of healthcare where gender parity has been historically lacking?

Horning: Despite clear gains in health and education toward gender parity, the disproportionate role of women in household responsibility and caregiving, especially in the provision of childcare, was unmasked by the pandemic. The 2021 McKinsey report on Women in the Workplace highlighted that women’s representation has improved incrementally at all corporate levels, but there continues to be significant disparities for women of colour and attrition at the manager level and beyond for all women. The response to the pandemic and an awakening to social injustice helped address these barriers, which must be overcome to achieve a robust pipeline and parity at the top.

Tremoulet: The pandemic clearly did not affect everyone equally, and studies have shown that gender equality was one of its victims. For example, a report by the EU Commission found that 76% of healthcare and social care workers and 86% of personal care workers in health services were women. So, they were disproportionately affected by workload challenges and health risk. Times of crisis often can result in setbacks to positive progress.

How has the pharmaceutical industry responded to the pandemic’s repercussions for its female workforce?

Horning: Times of crisis create new challenges and call for both resilience and re-evaluation of existing norms. Pharmaceutical companies listened to their employees’ needs and created highly flexible work agreements, protected time from meetings, provided additional benefits for childcare and, in some cases, paid leaves of absence. Challenging our assumptions, research showed that remote working can actually lead to greater inclusion for minorities compared with in-person meetings. Although the pandemic’s stresses resulted in re-consideration of career for many women, the silver lining is that managers and leaders responded by listening, learning, and engaging in proactive conversations about employees’ work life balance and well-being. That development should have a lasting benefit for women and men in the workplace. The pandemic provides a rare opportunity for sustained change and a better way to work.

Tremoulet: McKinsey reported that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs, and that although women make up 39% of global employment, they account for 54% of overall job losses. So, there is no doubt that women have been disproportionately affected overall. With Equity being one of our core values, we ensured to constantly check in on our talent, especially those who are parents, and caregivers. We also ensured we stuck to the goals we set to increase representation of females at VP+ by 2025.

Times of crisis create new challenges and call for both resilience and re-evaluation of existing norms

How can leaders remain educated in, conscious of, and committed to gender parity and inclusion within their internal cultures?

Horning: The first step to parity and inclusion is acknowledging, understanding, and embracing the diversity of experiences of women – an umbrella term. I’d encourage leaders to collect objective and subjective data from their employees and, along with external data, experiment with change based on sustainable positive experiences while fixing negative experiences. Acknowledging the importance of advancing a diverse group of women as managers, and setting expectations for all managers to make cultures more inclusive, together with senior leadership, is key.

Tremoulet: Organisational change starts with building the right culture, but it requires leadership to drive this through – not just senior leaders, but the middle managers who are the ‘engine room’ of any company. In 2019, Pfizer launched four new company values: courage, excellence, joy, and equity. CEO Albert Bourla has made it clear that everything we do, and every decision we take, must be guided by these values.

What is an example of an exciting advancement in gender parity in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors today?

Horning: I’m excited by the contributions of women in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic – the health crisis of a century. The advent of mRNA vaccines is based on the foundational, career-long work of Katalin Kariko, who is the recent recipient of the prestigious 2021 Lasker Award and 2022 Breakthrough Prize. Female leaders were responsible for the first emergency authorizations of a COVID-19 vaccine and an antiviral. Additionally, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was shared by two women, whose work is revolutionising pharmaceutical discovery. What terrific role models for women! While still woefully in the minority, female representation on Boards of Directors made major strides in the last year among all women and women of colour – aided by legislation in California and investors who are demanding diverse boards. This is an important trend worth following.

Tremoulet: For 10 years, Pfizer has invested in a highly successful programme called Female Aspiring Talent in Europe which is designed to develop future female leaders. Feedback is consistently outstanding. The selection process aims to choose a mix of participants functionally and geographically, usually in the earlier or middle stages of their career. Through a combination of development and mentoring, it provides them with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to progress in their career paths. Businesses that invest in women are proven to be more successful.

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