Addressing the gender imbalance in life sciences today to secure a better tomorrow - Thoughts from the Centre | Deloitte UK

By Debi Rhodes, COO & Clients & Industries Lead, Life Sciences & Healthcare


Today, Friday 8th March marks the annual celebration of International Women’s Day with the theme, Balance for Better. I couldn’t help but question what this day really means to me? How is it important to my future, that of my children, to business and society as a whole, particularly when we consider the Future of Work and the impact of AI and new technologies on the skills and talent that will be needed in tomorrow’s world? Given my tendency for cynicism, I also questioned how the future might impact the issue of gender equality?

It’s apparent when you look at those in senior positions across industries, but specifically my industry, life sciences, that there are considerable challenges in supporting women to attain and remain in leadership roles. It’s important therefore to understand the barriers that exist, and consider what needs to be done to inspire the next generation of women, who have developed their skills in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), to see life sciences as a thriving, diverse industry in which they can build on these skills and have long and successful careers.

What is the status of gender equality in life sciences today?

Reflecting on the numerous reports, articles and statistics that now exist on gender inequality in general and in life sciences, what I find particularly disappointing from my perspective are the following findings:

  • the World Economic Forum in its ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2018’ estimates that at the current pace of change it will take 108 years to achieve global gender parity in the workplace. This is an increase of eight years compared to the estimate from last year’s edition, due to the extremely slow progress registered in 20181
  • women consist of 49 per cent of the global life sciences workforce, which is a higher percentage than other STEM industries.2 However, women make up only 10 per cent of boards and only 20 per cent of leadership teams, even though half of entry level positions are filled by women3
  • 52 per cent of entry-level positions at pharmaceutical and medical products companies are filled by women, and yet only 22 per cent of C-suite positions are filled by women4
  • in 2016, life sciences had one of the largest pay gaps in the UK, alongside the energy and technology sectors5
  • women leave the life sciences at every step of the career ladder in greater proportions than men.6

These statistics provide clear evidence that the life sciences industry has considerable, unique barriers to overcome to make the necessary and positive changes to achieve gender equality. In particular to encourage and support women to pursue leadership positions. Some of the existing barriers impacting women’s career progression, which are relevant across all industries, include lack of work-life balance or flexible working patterns, lack of female role models or mentors, and unconscious or gender bias, to name a few.

How can we put life sciences on the right track to achieve gender equality in the future?

There are a number of initiatives that exist to attract, retain and develop young and aspiring women and equip them for a career in life sciences. STEM programmes, women in leadership initiatives and the regulation on pay gap reporting in the UK are positive steps forward which address the existing gender equality challenge. More specifically, The WISE Campaign is a movement to recognise noteworthy accomplishments by women in science and technology, with the mission of adding another one million women to the STEM workforce in the UK.7 There are also a number of Government initiatives to encourage girls to study STEM subjects, as mentioned in the House of Commons 2016 report - Increasing diversity in STEM careers, Government funding for the Stimulating Physics Network and Further Mathematics Support Programme, with a particular focus on engaging more girls.

To achieve a better gender balance and increase opportunities for women to progress to senior positions in their careers, there are ways in which organisations can look to support women’s transitions to leadership positions. By way of example, and which may help other organisations consider what can be done to enhance career progression for women, Deloitte have taken considerable, bold steps internally to attract women into our firm, but also initiatives to retain them and provide the support required for women to progress, (some of which I have been fortunate enough to directly experience). These include:

  • steps to ensure that our recruitment processes are without bias
  • an industry leading Return to Work programme
  • a series of female sponsorship, mentoring and development programmes
  • a range of support for our working parents
  • active monitoring of our female talent pipeline.

Although Deloitte recognises we could do more internally, we also help our clients with their women in leadership programmes.

Should organisations need more convincing, a recent report from a group of senior leaders in Australia who share a common goal to achieve gender equality and advance more women into senior leadership positions, provides compelling evidence of the barriers and benefits. The report explains the drivers of resistance (lack of understanding, fear, change fatigue, cultural norms and industry norms) and shares organisations’ experiences to help others understand and address a range of responses to gender equality strategies. It emphasises that there is a demonstrated business case for gender equality. Evidence shows it improves the bottom line, promotes innovation and enhances decision making. Moreover, that gender equality and diversity enable organisations to be representative of, attractive to, and better able to meet the needs of their clients, customers, and communities.8

As I look at what difference I can make today – as a woman in business, as a parent and as someone that truly cares about others in the community – I think my role is simple: to nurture, to listen, to believe, to speak up, to shape and to mentor my children, my colleagues and those I come across to truly believe they can do anything they are passionate about. I encourage you all, as men and women in Life Sciences or any other industry, to do the same, and hopefully we can all create a better and fairer future for women. Happy International Women’s Day!

Debi Rhodes0016 updated

Debi Rhodes - COO & Clients & Industries Lead, Life Sciences & Healthcare

Debi is the Clients & Industries Lead for the Life Sciences & Healthcare practice. She drives the business strategy, business development, and the key client relationship and account management programmes for the industry. Debi is passionate about helping people, in particular supporting and mentoring young, aspiring women and working mothers, and leads the industry’s talent development and social responsibility initiative.

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