Culturing diversity to empower success

As part of EPR’s Women in Pharma series, Elisabeth Prchla, Managing Director at Merck KGaA, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about the secrets of overcoming gender imbalance and harnessing science and innovation…


Tell me about your career?

I hold a Doctorate in Biochemistry from the University of Vienna and an executive MBA from the University of Middlesex (Ashridge Business School) and have more than 20 years’ experience in commercial roles in the pharmaceutical industry. I began my career in 1997 at Servier Pharma in Austria as a Product Manager and went on to join Merck in 2002 as Head of Marketing for the Austrian affiliate. My career took off from there, leading me to Merck’s Darmstadt headquarters for a regional business manager role across 10 smaller European markets; this involved supporting the country teams with the Merck Serono integration, strategy development and operational effectiveness. I advanced my career further in General Manager (GM) roles, first for Merck’s chemical and pharmaceutical business in Slovakia, then in Austria and now as GM for Merck’s Biopharma business in the UK & Ireland. In addition, I am the country speaker for the Merck group, where I oversee the development of Merck’s presence in the UK. We are a vibrant science and technology company, spanning all of Merck’s business sectors – healthcare, life science and performance materials – across 14 sites, employing over 1400 people. I currently live in London and regularly commute to Vienna where my partner is based.

What does your current role entail?

As GM for the Biopharma business in the UK and Ireland, I am in charge of developing and tailoring our business strategy to local requirements and driving operational implementation together with my local leadership team. This includes overseeing all activities needed for the commercialisation of drugs, from the supply chain, quality assurance, medical affairs, market access and governmental affairs to marketing and sales and fostering a culture for high performance and collaboration. Our portfolio includes medicines that treat cancer, multiple sclerosis and infertility, and we are present in the field of endocrinology and cardiometabolic diseases. In addition, we have a rapidly expanding pipeline of innovative cancer therapies.

I have consciously taken the decision not to have children so that I didn’t need to compromise on leading a life as an independent businesswoman

From the moment I joined in mid-2015 I have galvanised the team around the vision of harnessing science and innovation, and in challenging the status quo for the benefit of patients. Our approach is very much about establishing a strong partnership with all stakeholders in the healthcare system. With these partnerships, the focus has been on finding new innovative ways to ensure that patients have access to medicines by finding ‘win-win-win’ solutions for the NHS, patients and industry, at a time of intense financial pressure for the NHS. This resulted in several recent NICE approvals for some of our medicines and additionally, we entered into a commercial agreement with the NHS to ensure that patients could have immediate access to a medicine.

I am also contributing to shaping the healthcare environment through my active participation in the European Medicines Group where I lead a working group on specialised commissioning.

In my country speaker role for the Merck group, I chair the Country Council that brings together our different business sectors to achieve alignment on strategy and processes, leverage business synergies and address key challenges such as BREXIT.

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

No. I believe that the pharmaceutical industry offers a wide variety of career opportunities for women and is more advanced in diversity than other industries. The strong need for continuous innovation can only be addressed by successfully working in diverse teams with different scientific, cultural, gender and nationality backgrounds. For instance, in our UK & Ireland Biopharma leadership team, both genders are equally represented.

I know many women who focus on their development opportunities rather than pointing out their achievements

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

We have many examples but a prominent example of an outstanding female leader is Belén Garijo, who is a member of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck Healthcare. At Merck 29% of management positions group-wide are currently held by women.  We believe that a diverse workforce – paired with an inclusive corporate culture – strengthens the innovative power of the group and contributes significantly to our business success. With this in mind, we work hard to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion. This also means empowering women to take on leadership positions within Merck.

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 personally have not experienced real barriers. On the other hand, I have consciously taken the decision not to have children so that I didn’t need to compromise on leading a life as an independent businesswoman. This fact implies that I was brought up with a very strong bias that a woman can only have either family or a career. However, Belén Garijo is an example that this doesn’t have to be the case but I believe she is still very much an exception in my generation. I do hope that the situation has now changed – I personally know many younger women who have advanced their career supported by their partners taking care of the family.

My advice to women would be: get rid of internal barriers that hamper self-confidence, create a strong network and try to find mentors. I am personally indebted to a female mentor who advocated my promotion into a senior role with a strong step out of my comfort zone. Her belief in me has given me the wings to succeed in an environment that was very male-oriented and to contribute to making the team more diverse and open to new perspectives.

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

The key to success is high performance paired with visibility and strong collaboration skills. I don’t believe that women have to work harder than men but they have to learn to talk more about their successes. I know many women who focus on their development opportunities rather than pointing out their achievements. They should learn to build on their individual strengths rather than trying to adapt to established predominantly “male” role models. I have personally taken the decision that I want to do more in order to encourage women at work to unleash their full potential – they certainly need a bespoke approach to leadership development.

The secret to overcoming this imbalance is to ensure there are positive role models

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?

I think in general, the pharmaceutical industry is more advanced in its approach to diversity than some other industries so this is helpful for women in advancing their careers. In my experience, I haven’t faced this ‘glass ceiling’ barrier but, of course, the situation will vary from one pharmaceutical company to another. 

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?

I think the secret to overcoming this imbalance is to ensure there are positive role models at all levels in place, which is why I am a strong advocate of mentoring. Globally and in the UK & Ireland, Merck has a strong commitment to developing the next generation of scientists through a number of high-profile education programmes and partnerships with educational institutions and academies. We facilitate schemes across several sites in England and Scotland which reach over a thousand young people, from school age right through to university, to engage them in a scientific career.

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

At Merck, we believe that a diverse workforce, paired with an inclusive corporate culture, strengthens the innovative power of our company and contributes significantly to our business success. With this in mind, we work hard to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion. Diversity of people brings a diversity of perspectives to business challenges and opportunities, ultimately resulting in greater success for the company.  Studies have shown that those companies with a higher representation of women in top management outperform those that don’t.

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