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Vivian Xie
19 Oct 2023

Women in Pharma: Hiring Across the Gender Divide

In our monthly series, we interview women from across the pharmaceutical industry and supply chain to discuss the importance of gender diversity in healthcare, the workplace, and beyond. 

This month, we discuss the importance of the Human Resources department in championing gender diversity within the pharmaceutical workforce. Elisabeth Guitart, Head of Healthcare HR International, Group Human Resources at Merck, takes us through how HR leaders ensure that HR strategies and initiatives align with business goals while also advocating for an equal gender landscape. Guitart gives advice to organisations on how they can diversify their workforce through both equal hiring practices and career development strategies for existing employees. 

Could you please give an overview of yourself and your role? 

I’m a Senior Strategic HR Leader with almost 20 years of experience in different markets as Fast Moving Consumer Goods, Pharmaceutical/Healthcare, and Life Science. I’ve developed leadership positions at the local, regional, and global level. My experience in HR covers all the fields in human resources highlighting strategy, business partnering, cultural transformation, and DE&I. I consider my role as a strategic business partner – integrating and aligning the HR strategy into the business strategy, striving for high impact, and ensuring execution to deliver measurable results that enable growth and performance. My passion is to help people grow and inspiring them to reach their full potential. I’m a can-do attitude person, oriented to transformational changes and results driven. Collaboration, team player, empathy, and open communication are part of my DNA. I’m a mother of two beautiful daughters and they are my best legacy in this world. 

As a Head of HR Healthcare International, I’m covering Europe, MEAR, APAC, LATAM, China, Japan, and Cardio Metabolic & Endocrinology global franchise business, which has 6500 employees and €6.4b net sales. I partner with global and regional senior business leaders across the regions to gain a clear understanding of the respective business strategies and operating plan, and develop an accompanying People Strategy to drive business results. I have the privilege to lead, empower, and inspire a global team of HRBPs (managers and individual contributors) to achieve ambitious business targets and ensure successful implementation and execution of people components. Representing the Healthcare sector, we drive initiatives that support growth, launch preparation, and business transformation. With this, we anticipate gaps/future workforce requirements including sourcing, performance, and rewards strategies for business-critical roles and to ensure a robust pipeline of talent development and succession planning for business-critical positions, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. I consider myself a business leader with a holistic view on business priorities, needs, challenges, and opportunities. 

What are some issues you have encountered in your capacity as a strategic HR leader? 

As a strategic global HR leader, I’ve faced various challenges. Some of them include: 

Aligning HR Strategy with Business Objectives: we need to ensure that HR strategies and initiatives align with the overall business goals and objectives of the organization. This requires a deep understanding of the business's strategic priorities and the ability to translate them into effective HR practices. This can be a big challenge considering the different cultures and needs across the regions. 

Talent Acquisition and Retention: attracting and retaining top talent is a constant challenge for organisations, including pharmaceutical companies. As HR leaders we are responsible for developing strategies to attract skilled professionals while retaining existing high-performing and high potential employees. This includes employer branding, talent pipelines, succession planning, and employee engagement initiatives. 

Transformations: we play a critical role in managing organizational change initiatives. This involves helping leaders navigate change, addressing employee concerns, ensuring effective communication, and managing resistance to change within the workforce. Again, here is crucial to have an inclusive mindset and cultural awareness because one size does not fit all.  

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: we play a role in designing and implementing DE&I initiatives, promoting a culture of inclusivity, and addressing unconscious bias in talent management processes. Global and matrix organizations often are quite complex and HR leaders need to be a lighthouse helping leaders and employees to navigate and design solutions to help them to become DE&I ambassadors. 

HR Analytics and Data-Driven Insights: as Human Resources becomes more data-driven, HR leaders need to develop the capability to analyse data and derive meaningful insights. This involves using metrics and analytics to inform decision-making and measure the effectiveness of HR initiatives. Designing relevant metrics and having reliable technology to measure them is key to leveraging HR analytics and informing and improving decision-making process in HR and in the business. 

Also, it is important to mention how vital it is to stay updated with different employment laws and compliance. This includes understanding and effectively implementing policies related to labour laws, equal employment opportunities, data privacy, and other employment-related regulations. 

To address all these challenges, “Acting as the owner” is a key behaviour to prioritise and is needed to possess strong strategic thinking, business acumen, enterprise mindset, effective communication, and relationship-building skills. For me, as a global HR leader, the key is to be adaptable, being proactive, maintain a helicopter view, be culturally sensitive, and be able to navigate complex organizational dynamics.

What can pharmaceutical businesses do to diversify their hiring practices and develop the skills of their workforce, especially for women? 

Pharmaceutical and Healthcare companies can take several steps to diversify their hiring practices and develop the skills of their workforce, with a particular focus on supporting women. Some key strategies can be: 

Review Job Descriptions: ensure that job descriptions are inclusive and free from gender bias. Clearly define required skills and qualifications, focusing on competencies rather than specific backgrounds or experiences that may unintentionally exclude certain groups. 

Implement Bias-Free Recruitment Processes: train and enable recruiters and hiring managers on unconscious bias and its impact on hiring decisions. Establish standardised and structured interview processes that focus on skills and abilities rather than personal characteristics. Use diverse interview panels to ensure multiple perspectives. 

Expand Recruiting Efforts: actively seek candidates from diverse talent pools such as women's networks, professional associations, business schools, and universities. Participate in diversity-focused careers fairs and events. Develop partnerships with organisations that promote gender diversity in the pharmaceutical industry. 

Enhance Employer Branding: build an inclusive employer brand that highlights the organisation's commitment to diversity and gender equality. Share success stories of women in leadership positions and create a supportive and inclusive work environment. 

Offer Internship and Mentoring Programs: establish internship programs targeted at attracting and developing talent from underrepresented groups, including women. Pair interns with mentors and seek for sponsors who can provide guidance, support, and opportunities for professional growth. 

Foster Inclusive Leadership: develop and promote inclusive leadership behaviours throughout the organisation and encourage leaders to champion diversity and gender equality, make them accountable for fostering inclusive teams, and recognise and reward inclusive behaviours. 

Support Work-Life Balance: implement policies and practices that support work-life balance, such as flexible work arrangements, childcare support, and maternity/paternity leave. Ensure managers are trained to effectively manage and support employees in balancing their personal and professional responsibilities. 

Establish Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): encourage the formation of employee resource groups focused on promoting women's empowerment and diversity in the workplace. These groups can provide networking opportunities, support, and a platform for sharing ideas and best practices.  

And finally, it is very important to monitor and measure, analyse regularly, and report on diversity and gender metrics within the organisation. This will help to identify areas of improvement, set goals, and track progress over time.  

By implementing these strategies, pharmaceutical businesses can create a more diverse and inclusive workforce, provide equal opportunities for women, and support their professional development within the industry.

How can women empower their own careers in pharmaceuticals? 

Women can empower their own careers in the pharmaceutical industry, but also in any other sector, by taking proactive steps and leveraging various strategies to boost their career advancement: 

Continuous Learning: women can invest in their education and professional development. It is very important to keep yourself updated as the pharmaceutical industry is constantly evolving, and continuous learning will help you to stay informed about industry trends, new technologies, and emerging research. This makes individuals more competitive in the industry, positioning themselves as valuable assets both within their organisations and externally. Learning agility is becoming one of the most valuable capabilities. 

Seek Sponsors, mentors, and role models: identifying and connecting with mentors and role models who have succeeded in the pharmaceutical field can provide valuable guidance and support. Mentors can offer career advice, share experiences, and help navigate challenges specific to the industry. It is also important to have a sponsor as someone who will speak for you when the opportunity is coming. 

Build a strong professional network: actively networking within the pharmaceutical industry can open doors to new opportunities. Attending industry conferences, joining professional associations, and engaging in communities can help women expand their network, gain visibility, and access career resources.

Growth Assignments and Projects: women should actively pursue challenging assignments and projects that allow them to showcase their skills and expertise. Taking on new responsibilities or leading cross-functional teams can demonstrate leadership potential and help gain recognition within the organisation. Developing leadership and soft skills such as communication, negotiation, problem-solving, resilience, flexibility, and agility is essential for career growth.   

Advocate for Yourself: women should proactively advocate for their achievements and strengths, and raise their voices sharing aspirations in the workplace. 

By adopting these strategies, women can proactively empower their careers and overcome barriers that exist within the pharmaceutical industry. 

How does Human Resources as a career help advance gender equity in the pharmaceutical industry? 

Human Resources (HR) plays a crucial role in advancing gender equity in the pharmaceutical industry and beyond. There are many levers to boost gender equity, some of them: 

Policies and Programs: develop and implement inclusive policies and programs that promote gender equality. This includes initiatives such as diversity and inclusion programs, pay equity assessments, flexible work arrangements, and family-friendly policies. 

Recruitment and Hiring: actively promote gender diversity during the recruitment and hiring process. This involves setting targets for hiring women in leadership roles, implementing unbiased selection processes, and partnering with diverse organisations and networks to attract a diverse talent pool. 

Training and Awareness: HR can provide training programs to raise awareness about unconscious bias and gender stereotypes among employees. Training can focus on promoting an inclusive culture, preventing harassment and discrimination, and fostering equal opportunities for career advancement. 

Employee Resource Groups: supporting the establishment of employee resource groups that specifically address gender-related issues. These groups provide a platform for networking, mentoring, and advocacy, enabling employees to collaborate and contribute to gender equity initiatives. 

Leadership programs and mentoring is creating opportunities for women in the pharmaceutical industry. By offering guidance, support, and equal access to career advancement opportunities, HR can help bridge the gender gap in leadership positions. 

Overall, HR and Business leaders have a joint responsibility and opportunity to create an inclusive and equitable work environment that empowers women to drive their best. 

Who are some of your Heroines of Pharma (women you look up to in the pharmaceutical industry)?

I’m very lucky because I have the opportunity to work closely with powerful women at Merck. I want to highlight that Merck is a German global company headed by our CEO Belen Garijo who has once again been named one of Fortune's Most Powerful Women this year. This prestigious recognition honours 100 inspiring female leaders in business, culture, politics, and society who are breaking barriers and paving the way for future generations. Also, Hong Chow, Head of China & International Healthcare Business, is a great leader and always thinks about how to meet patient needs and mobilising teams towards this goal. One of my role models is Marieta Jiménez, Senior Regional Vice President Healthcare Europe and Maphre Board Director. She is a purposeful and inspirational leader, a people driver, and creates value and high impact in Merck and beyond. She is a strong advocate of gender equity and President of Closingap. Closingap is a cluster of 12 companies created in September 2018 with the aim of promoting transformation from the business sphere in favour of equal opportunities between women and men, with close collaboration between the public and private sectors. Marieta is a transformative leader and is raising her voice to show that inequality translates into economic and GDP impact and women are catalysts for cultural change for a more sustainable world. She is actively contributing to break barriers, creating awareness, and inspiring women and girls to pursue their ambitions.  

Interested in how we're championing gender diversity and equality in the pharmaceutical industry? Click here to read all instalments of our Women in Pharma series.

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Vivian Xie
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