Click to listen

Reflecting on my career and the significant societal and technological shifts during those years, I see it as split between two generations, each half so different from the other.

Those my age began our careers in a generation where “Mad Men” dynamics were still pervasive, especially in the Pharma world of sales and marketing. This has changed dramatically in the second-half generation. Many of us now enjoy careers where it is normal and common for men and women to work collaboratively at all levels; intellect and effective leadership are respected, no matter where they come from (most of the time). To me, it still feels remarkable enough that I regularly notice and mention it.

(I am aware that having shed corporate America to start my own company and living in the very progressive state of Massachusetts, my experiences are not felt equally by everyone in every situation or location.)

What were the differences in professional decorum in each of the two half-generations? In my experience of the first half:

  • Women were rarely on the management team. If a woman was there, she was often the only one and had to be very careful. The male power dynamic was visible and often felt oppressive and exclusionary.
  • Openly objectifying women for physical attributes was acceptable commentary.
  • Women were presumed to be emotional, insecure, and unable to handle the challenges of the day. When they tried to emulate assertive behaviors, they were labeled “difficult.”
  • It was acceptable to ask a woman what her husband did and if she planned to have a family (i.e., get pregnant and be unavailable). If they became pregnant, women were concerned they would not be “taken seriously.” (I felt this way when my first child was born.)
  • Women returning to work after maternity leave received minimal to no flexibility. Fathers were not offered the opportunity to take time off when their wives (not partners then) had a baby or the child was sick.
  • Women with career aspirations had few role models and needed men to help them advance. Sometimes this was a godsend… sometimes not so much.
  • Many women did not work outside the home, and those who did were somehow “less than” for their families. Male colleagues had a resource that could handle family life, allowing them to be singularly focused on work.
  • Female sales reps in Pharma were often hired to appeal to the mostly male MD audience. Sales meetings were every bit the “party world” you have heard about — an HR nightmare by today’s standards.
  • Respected experts on any panel / article / interview were nearly always male and never a person of color. This was the case in most news programs and political arenas as well.

Much has changed with the second-half generation. There is progress worth celebrating:

  • Women are far more represented in the leadership ranks in biopharma, including CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, and General Counsel, and definitely in the layer beneath those titles. I often join a Zoom where all the leaders are women! Still remarkable!
  • The intentional efforts to include women on Boards are making a difference in terms of numbers and impact.
  • Women start companies, run them, sell them, and start others (although they still have more challenges in raising money).
  • Women are seen as powerful leaders whose skills are required to achieve business results.

My own experiences reflect this shift:

  • I don’t sense the power dynamic of yesteryear in most of my business interactions (I know that venture capital, investment banking, and other arenas, including tech, are not in the same place).
  • I see young men and women collaborating and respecting each other’s perspectives without reservation.
  • I see younger leaders celebrating growing families of all types and prioritizing participation in children’s lives while contributing professionally without judgment. (I recognize that is more often the case for professional roles with two parents involved.)
  • I rarely see male-dominated panels anymore.
  • I see receptivity to ensuring both men and women have professional development opportunities. In today’s world, encouraging women to be direct and men to be empathic is okay.

As I have shared these observations with my peer group, I feel validated, as many see and celebrate the same progress. Hooray!

But… Not All the News Is Good

Incredibly talented women describe power plays that marginalize others, including dismissive language by even the most senior executives. We still see corporate cultures that retain behaviors that should not be tolerated and that create an environment reflective of the 80s and 90s. This results in women leaving their companies or opting out of important career paths where women are even less represented (venture, private equity, Boards, C-Suite, including R&D).

For example, a Gen Z colleague who has not experienced the worst of the Mad Men’s negative behaviors shares that she and her friends often discuss the impact of that history, especially as it relates to unconscious bias — being underestimated and condescended is something they all feel, even today.

I am unaware of any broad, systematic efforts to understand why these women leave. Even more worrisome is that these companies, regardless of the industry, are losing the diverse perspective that helps them achieve their vision, represent what this generation expects, and provide role models for the half-generation coming up the ranks.

So, should we celebrate progress or lament that we have not gone far enough? As we often recommend in these newsletters, we should have a conversation about what we see… shining a light on both the progress and the opportunities for further improvement that still exist.

With that in mind, I hope that:

  • Young people seek to understand where this generation of senior leaders has come from so they may build on the progress. How is it different? What is the same? How can they help ensure improvements continue in their generation?
  • Experienced, older people learn from the young people and understand our unconscious biases and how that affects them.
  • Teams are mixed-gender, and mixed-race, and mixed everything else that we can mix up and show our diversity, and that we regularly discuss how they can work more collaboratively. They should not take for granted when it works very well and should not shy away from difficult conversations.
  • When someone exits a company, we understand what drove that decision and presume there may be more to the story.
  • We seek to diversify the places with too much homogeneity, especially in areas where those groups (or individuals) exert power that creates obstacles for others.
  • We each strive to be clear and speak up when words, tone, or actions are dismissive, marginalizing, or just inappropriate.
  • Finally, we emphasize the good far more than we hide from the bad so that we may create a vision for future generations in which everyone can contribute to the goal of serving patients.

The connection of this progress to commercialization in biopharma is even more apparent as we recognize our industry’s complexity. The need to focus on patients, exercise multidimensional creativity, and prioritize insights mandates everyone to be fully engaged, fully able to contribute, and fully aligned with the mission to change the world for patients.