Performance – the ultimate criteria for achieving success

As part of EPR’s Women in Pharma series, Elaine Chiquette Head of Science at Gelesis, Inc, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about positive challenges, embracing responsibilities and being committed to your goals…

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

I hold a Doctorate in Pharmacy and a Post Doctorate in Epidemiology. After my original training, I started my career as Deputy Director of a US-based Cochrane Collaboration Center, which is a global network of researchers and professionals with expertise in epidemiology and evidence-based medicine.  Within that role, I led the team who developed and authored the evidence-report supporting the 1998 NIH Obesity Guidelines.  The experience shaped the rest of my life, as I focused my career in obesity and obesity-related disorders, with a particular love of health science data.  Since then, I have held several leadership positions in health science companies.  Today, I have more than 20 years of experience in launching therapeutics (pharmaceuticals as well as devices) for diseases in the field of metabolic disorders affecting millions (obesity and diabetes) or hundreds (lipodystrophy, children born without fat cells). 

Ironically, I may have been the biggest barrier to my own success.  Early on, I doubted my abilities and in some ways, I overcompensated by trying to do everything on my own. I also had a tendency to hold back my opinions in many professional situations.  

What does your current role entail?

As Executive Vice President and Head of Science at Gelesis, Inc, I am on the executive leadership team and oversee the clinical program.  This entails the conduct of clinical trial work and other scientific exploration, data interpretation and its communication to each of our relevant audiences.  Recently, Gelesis hit a significant milestone with the completion of a large randomised controlled trial for our lead program., Given my position, I played an instrumental role throughout this process, leading the interpretation of the trial and articulating how it fits in with current treatment of obesity and other metabolic disorders.

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

Women in leadership positions are certainly faced with a unique set of challenges as it is well-recognised that men dominate these positions in many walks of executive lives, especially in the pharma industry. However, for a driven woman, this is a positive challenge that I believe can help to sharpen your skills at an earlier stage in your career, which can only help benefit you later. 

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

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by many strong female role models.  Each held different positions, ranging from manager to CEO, but they all had specific qualities in common.  They worked hard, sought opportunities, and surrounded themselves with high-energy, performing team members and colleagues.

 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?

To be successful, you need to know what your professional goals are

Ironically, I may have been the biggest barrier to my own success.  Early on, I doubted my abilities and in some ways, I overcompensated by trying to do everything on my own. I also had a tendency to hold back my opinions in many professional situations.  Over time, I learned to 1) speak up and let my voice be heard, 2) be confident enough to step up in situations I knew I could add value, and 3) prioritise and ask for help or to delegate more amongst team members.  These changes helped me evolve into a more effective executive.  With increasing confidence, I was able to embrace responsibilities that may have been outside of my comfort zone and seek opportunities that would challenge me, which ultimately helped obtain critical experience to broaden my capabilities and advance my career.

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

Women bring their unique life experience and values to every situation

There is no formula or step-by-step instructions to reach the C-suite.  To be successful, you need to know what your professional goals are (C-suite or otherwise), be committed to your goals, and be flexible and comfortable with change.  Regardless of the organisation, change is inevitable.  A leader is willing to drive and help implement change.  Bottom line, performance is the ultimate criteria for achieving success and you want to be recognised as someone who “can get the job done.”

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

Throughout my career, I have had the great fortune to work with three female CEOs and many other influential women with key leadership positions in the pharmaceutical industry.  I cannot be sure what women and men predominance is across other industries, but I believe we are experiencing a positive shift towards more women representation in leadership positions in healthcare organisations. and I think this is a change for the good.

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?

With an uptick of women in leadership positions (not just CEOs and University Deans), it’s important that we continue to build momentum by increasing visibility of women across all tiers of the scientific and technology community.  Since this field has historically been so dominated by men, we need to shift the pendulum by proactively mentoring and nurturing young women at a young age – in high schools, college and through the ranks of executive life.

Let’s helps these young girls realise that these aren’t fictional role models, but real women that are proving every day that rising to executive positions is an achievable goal.  Also, it’s important to exhibit that there are as many career paths as there are women in the scientific and technology fields.  Also, we need to demonstrate that success is a state of mind, not a position, title or size of the department you manage.

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

Diversity is key to success in so many ways.  Women bring their unique life experience and values to every situation. We are all – both men and women – a part of an increasingly integrated global community where disease and corresponding treatment impacts people of all walks of life, so it is so important, in our industry especially, that leadership best represent the views and perspectives of the patients we help.  

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