Breaking the glass ceiling 16th September 2019
By Sarah Harding, PhD
We spoke to four leaders of research and business operations at WuXi AppTec to discuss their views on Women in Science in the 21st
WuXi AppTec provides a broad portfolio of R&D and manufacturing services that enable companies in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industries worldwide to advance discoveries and deliver ground breaking treatments to patients. Founded in 2000, the company now has over 30 sites globally, where it employs more than 19,000 people – half of whom are women. Sarah Harding spoke to four of them, to hear their thoughts on working in the pharmaceutical industry in the 21st century.
Having broken the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’, these women are great role models for other young people entering the pharma industry. So it was good to hear that they all now mentor young people themselves, either formally or informally.
And if remaining in someone’s thoughts as an inspirational and inspiring memory isn’t sufficient incentive for you to take on a mentoring role yourself, perhaps this additional comment will induce you to consider encouraging your younger colleagues to make the best of themselves.
Although they were fortunate to have the encouragement from key people in their lives, there were still challenges to be overcome on their ways up the career ladder.
“As a woman,” said Xiao-Ping Dai, “perhaps we need to not only be twice as good but also do twice as much… and can be even more challenging as an Asian woman.”
Gundel Hager agreed, saying “My experience taught me that one has to be multiple as good in order to achieve similar career goals as male colleagues.”
Nevertheless, most of the panel agreed that the situation for women in the workplace has improved in the 21st century.
“I think it is easier for women to progress their career today than 15 or 20 years ago,” said Yu Lu, who is the mother of two daughters. “Looking back the toughest years in my career path were the first few years after my younger daughter was born. I was physically and mentally exhausted all the time. As my daughters grew older I gradually found myself again! There is a much more mature childcare support environment in the society today than 20 years ago, and there are many more well-respected women leaders in every aspect as a consequence.”
“We have seen more and more women taking important leadership roles today than ever,” added Jinling Chen. “There has been a gradual culture change that makes it more acceptable for women to be leaders.”
Jinling Chen noted that the gender challenge appeared quite late in her career path. “I did not feel the difference career wise as a student, a scientist, and even in middle level management positions. However, I did see that it is more difficult for women than men advancing to senior leadership roles. Some had difficulties to believe in woman’s ability to understand complex issues and to make decisions decisively, even when we have a strong track record to demonstrate ourselves.”
It is important that women are encouraged to reach higher levels of management – not just for the moral arguments of equality, but also because they bring particular skills to the table, which offer added value to the companies that employ them.
Xiao-Ping Dai was very clear that, “Most women leaders are hard-working individuals and have strong emotional intelligence. If they have an ‘added value’, on top of technical expertise, it is the ability to understand people better.”
The other panellists appeared to agree, echoing this sentiment in their own ways.
“In general women are more ‘sensitive’, which means they tend to pay more attention to the needs of the people around them, whether that’s a colleague or a customer,” said Yu Lu. “Women also tend to have stronger analytical skills and pay more attention to details.”
“Often, women turn to be good listeners,” said Jinling Chen. “It helps us to understand others in a deeper level and allows us to bring the best out of everyone. It is good for building a cohesive team. Women also tend to pay more attention to the need of our end users – the patients.”
“Women are great team players and communicators and, in combination with the multiple as good professional competence, they will drive their teams to success,” agreed Gundel Hager.
Another factor that emerged during this discussion was ego. It was suggested that perhaps one advantage women bring is that they don’t typically require as much credit or recognition for the support they offer. However, this can be a two-edged sword. The suggestion that women don’t always require or demand the recognition for their successes could be indirectly related to how senior positions end up predominately filled by males. Perhaps women need to advocate for themselves a bit more.
Advocating for ourselves
This will be a familiar theme for anyone who has attended a women’s networking event. Most women’s natural tendency is towards modesty for their achievements, but we need to learn to ensure that those achievements are recognised and rewarded – not just for ourselves, but for those around us too.