Using quality as a lever for transformation

As part of EPR’s Women in Pharma series, Céline Schillinger, Head, Quality Innovation & Engagement at Sanofi Pasteur, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about growing modern leadership skills, taking advantage of digital and social technologies and leveraging diversity in decision-making…

Tell me about your career? (A brief summary to date)

An unusual career compared to the Pharma industry standards, I suppose! I identify myself as a “neo-generalist” that authors Kenneth Mikkelsen & Richard Martin have defined as both a specialist and a generalist. This has been challenging at times of career transition because no particular path forward appeared clearly, but it has also given me numerous opportunities to operate in different capacities around the world.

I studied political science as the general interest and the public sphere appealed to me, but then realised the pace of private business was more my thing. So I added corporate communications to my curriculum then got a first job in a small IT business whose main market was China.

This raised my interest in business operations and Asia. I left France aged 23 to look for a job in Vietnam. A small business consulting firm hired me as their country representative. Four years later I joined a client as a sales manager for Asia Pacific, before moving to China as the general manager of their radio business. Overall, this has been 10 years in non-pharma businesses.

In 2001, I started working for Sanofi Pasteur in Lyon, France. I didn’t know much about Pharma, but I got really attracted by the human values and care for protection I felt during the interviews. I joined the International Human Resources Dept, then moved to Int’l Business Operations, Strategic Planning and Project Management, Marketing. In 2011 I started an exploration of activism, co-creation, social networks, and how this can help business performance. It is a pretty innovative field for Pharma but my work has received multiple awards and recognitions, which is very encouraging. Since 2014 I have been the Head of Innovation and Engagement for Global Quality.

What does your current role entail?

I do leadership transformation, globally, at all levels of the organisation. My current role started from the need to reinvent the way we work, in order to better deliver on our promise to our customers.

Because of conservatism, fear of change, unconscious bias or “biased processes”, a narrow archetype of male leader gets favoured over every other talent.

My mission is to change quality from an imposed constraint to a shared passion. I love quality as a lever to transform an organisation because quality is pretty much how people think and behave across every level and every function. It is how the organisation cares for customers’ needs and mobilises all its resources and puts them to work together in the cleverest way.

I am the facilitator of a global movement for change and improvement across the organisation, sponsored by our Chief Quality Officer. I enable, engage, coach leaders and volunteers to work together differently, boosting the capacity of our company to innovate, improve and operate with agility. I help people grow modern leadership skills, take advantage of digital and social technologies, leverage diversity in decision-making. It’s been a totally uplifting experience so far, hugely successful from a business standpoint and incredibly rich in human connections and learning.

 Do you think being a woman in the Pharma industry is a challenge?

The Pharma industry is blessed with a broad female talent pool; about half of the industry employees are women, having all sorts of roles – from science to manufacturing, from regulatory to sales and much more. The business case for diversity has been so clearly established nowadays that no one can ignore or deny it. Unfortunately, the industry is still very much a man’s world when it comes to positional leadership.

Because of conservatism, fear of change, unconscious bias or “biased processes”, a narrow archetype of male leader gets favoured over every other talent. Women, but also men who do not fit with this archetype, have a much harder time progressing through the ranks. They are not evaluated according to the same standards. It is not intentional but it is very unfortunate and progress is very slow.

When I compare the laborious career path of some wonderful women and men I know, to the meteoritic progression of some men whose main asset is their fit with the dominant archetype, I cringe. We still waste too much talent. To address this, we could do much more than diversity trainings (which sometimes backfire), diversity quotas (resented by everyone) or coaching programs for women (fix the system, not the women!)

Are there any examples within your company in particular where women have been successful?

Yes, fortunately, we have a number of brilliant women in some top-level jobs. This makes me really happy for them and hopeful for our company. I also believe we’re making progress and we’re being more and more intentional about diversity. We have very committed D&I professionals, dynamic employee resource groups, and more ambitious hiring policies. But look at the numbers: there is still a lot to do. Our most blatant success – the diversity of the Board of Directors – was triggered by legal constraint: a French law of 2011 requires the CAC 40 boards to have women account for at least 40 percent of their members.

What seemed impossible at the time of the law proved possible, even if the pool of female board members is still small. The next frontier is now the internal meritocracy system. We need to value and recognise better the talent of women, but also of people from different socio-economic background, race, cultural origin… We need to bring more different people to work together much more often, in order to accustom the organisation to the challenges of diversity and make it a strength rather than a risk.

A strong help to my career so far has been… my husband. I have been lucky (or wise!) to fall in love with a man who does a lot at home

What have you experienced as barriers to success on your career path, and what advice would you give to women who come up against these same barriers?

I was given opportunities early on because I started in small organisations and worked in markets under development. In strong entrepreneurship cultures, young women face lesser barriers. In bigger, more established organisations, competition is stiffer and the dominant culture can be a hurdle. I have seen many talented young women entering at a junior level and staying there way too long. They could be 2 or 3 levels upper by now.

To be a young woman professional in a Latin culture can be complicated as well, although I hope things are changing there. Harassment is now better identified and less tolerated. But women keep being taken less seriously than their male counterparts.

A strong help to my career so far has been… my husband. I have been lucky (or wise!) to fall in love with a man who does a lot at home. Sharing the household work, challenging the gendered norms of domestic work responsibilities, establishing healthy habits early on among partners and then again when children come, are very important.

My last advice is about visibility and independence. Since women get fewer opportunities than men to be heard and to progress within their organisations, I whole-heartedly recommend to network and shine externally. Chose something you care about, and do something about it beyond the boundaries of your organisation. It can be a professional or a personal interest. What you do with passion brings you additional skills, a wider network, and a bigger credibility.

You decrease the dependency on your organisation or your manager to make you grow. Having my own blog has been quite liberating in this perspective. Don’t wait to be picked, or you could wait a long time.

We need more women… more humanities majors… more people of colour… more professionals coming from other jobs… in short, a much bigger diversity of viewpoints at all levels.

What can women do to prepare themselves to reach the C-suite in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries?

Work and network! You can make it. But also think about alternative ways to make an impact. The C-suite is not the only way.

Looking more broadly in the industry do you think there is a glass ceiling for women in pharma and is it any worse than in other industries?

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox spoke about the “gender asbestos” rather than the glass ceiling, and I think it’s true. The problem sits at every level of the organisations, not just at the top. I don’t think Pharma is worse than other industries – look at the construction industry or at Silicon Valley – but we may have a bigger responsibility to fix this quickly. We serve patients of all cultures, races, genders… We must be able to reflect their diversity, so as to better connect with them and address their healthcare needs.

Currently, men outnumber women in science graduate degrees in the UK – how can we better address this imbalance to encourage more women into biology, chemistry, mathematics, and so on?

Girls are affected by stereotypes from a very early age. Did you hear about this experience where girls get better results at a drawing test than at the very same test labelled “geometry”? What beliefs does it convey?

We, adults, have a huge responsibility in this. What toys, books and TV programs we chose for our kids… How we help them decode gender clichés… How aware we are of our own biases as parents or educators … It starts with every one of us. Then, there’s how adult women are treated in the scientific world. We need to address the most obvious issues of unfairness and have more women scientists speak to kids and teenagers about the beauty of their job.

How could the Pharma industry benefit if more women were in higher roles?

Having more women will be a progress but we can’t stop there. What really matters is to mirror the diversity of the world we serve. We need more women… more humanities majors… more people of colour… more professionals coming from other jobs… in short, a much bigger diversity of viewpoints at all levels. We also need more network and co-construction across levels, as the old pyramidal system is no longer fit for purpose.

Finally, we have to be open and collaborate much more with our external ecosystem. When we achieve this, the Pharma industry will be true to its mission. This is the best business & public relations move it can make.

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