Ensuring diversity is a key part of Medidata’s culture

As part of EPR’s Women inspiring Pharma series, Jill Larsen, EVP & CHRO, Medidata Solutions, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about addressing the clear challenges facing women in pharma, supporting STEM education initiatives and building crucial relationships…

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

I have over 20 years of experience establishing and transforming human resources at global, high-tech companies. I started my career with a bachelor’s degree in Communications and English from Boston College, and I later earned a master’s degree in HR Management from Emmanuel College.

Prior to my current role at Medidata, I spent the past five years in a blended SVP role at Cisco, as both a global HR business partner and leader of talent acquisition. I enjoyed the entrepreneurial nature of that role, and the opportunity to participate in different projects. I drove a complete digital transformation of Cisco’s TA function, focusing on candidate experience, talent brand, predictive analytics, and next-generation tools. Additionally, I led HR for Cisco’s Services organisation, supporting 14,000 employees and $13bn in revenues. Before joining Cisco, I spent five years at EMC as the CHRO of RSA Security and head of HR operations.

Women entering technology roles face bigger hurdles since tech is more engineering focused; engineering continues to be an area where we struggle globally to have women properly represented.

What does your current role entail?

Currently, I oversee human resources and workplace resource functions, including culture, people strategy, and technology, in my role as Chief Human Resources Officer & EVP at Medidata. I am also responsible for the design and physical security of our facilities.

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

As a newcomer to the sector, I would say my initial impression of being a woman in the pharma industry has been very positive. I was encouraged by what I heard at a recent Women in Life Sciences panel, which I hosted in conjunction with the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA). The event included 50 women ranging from mid to senior levels in the life sciences and healthcare sector, and most of them said they hadn’t experienced a glass ceiling and felt that their companies were very supportive of promoting women.

However, we must continually address clear challenges facing women in pharma by ensuring that the industry aligns with their ambitions, and determine how best to support other women in the industry. This starts with educating our children via STEAM efforts and finding both female and male mentors and sponsors. Many of the women on the Women in Life Sciences panel expressed appreciation for amazing male colleagues who helped catapult their careers.

Women enter the industry in equal proportion to men (49.6% women vs 50.4% men), but the gender-gap grows at all career stages, despite equal aspirations for C-suite and board positions. Data shows that by the time women reach the C-suite, they hold only 24% of positions while men hold the remaining 76%. At the board level, the divide worsens: women comprise just 14.4% of positions, and the other 85.6% of seats are filled by men. Women who hold SVP or VP positions, a prime talent source for the C-suite, are the group most affected by this divide.

Compared to the technology sector, I think pharma does a better job of having female leaders, and it’s partially because women of all different backgrounds (e.g. healthcare, medical, CRO/research) enter the pharma field. I feel like there might be more entry points for women in pharma than in tech. Women entering technology roles face bigger hurdles since tech is more engineering focused; engineering continues to be an area where we struggle globally to have women properly represented.

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

We have a number of women in leadership positions at Medidata, including Julie Iskow, Chief Technology Officer, Janet Butler, SVP, Strategic Partnerships, and Jackie Kent, SVP, Head of Product.

Medidata supports women in their careers through a variety of initiatives. We have a number of women-focused groups at Medidata, including our BRGs (Business Resource Groups): Women of Color, Women in Tech, and Medidata Women Initiative. For example, at the beginning of March, Medidata hosted an International Women’s Day event supported by our BRGs, which featured an incredible panel from the UN Population Fund, and the BRG group, Women of Color, supported the Kicked It In Heels initiative.

Medidata is also currently working on joining the 2020 Women on Boards initiative, which is a pledge for our board to have 20% female membership by 2020. We are in the process of recruiting our first female board member. Our co-founders, Tarek and Glen, are very passionate about getting female representation on the board. Considering how incredibly difficult it can be for women to get their first public board position, both Tarek and Glen recognise the importance of this endeavour and are willing to consider hiring women with no prior Board experience. We need more sponsors like them out in the industry.

We monitor our progress closely, not only for the board but across the organisation – in fact, currently, many of our core functional areas like Marketing, Finance, HR, Professional Services, etc. have achieved (at least 50%) gender parity. As a result of empowering and investing in our workforce, we are able to help our partners bring important new products to market that address unmet clinical needs. Medidata also supports women in tech through the Black Girls Code initiative. Additionally, in February 2018, Medidata hosted a Diversity in Clinical Trials event to discuss major industry themes.

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?

A frequently referenced statistic purports that women are less likely than men to apply for roles for which they have 70% of the skillset. However, I think this says more about the industry rather than women’s tendencies. Even something as simple as not having the correct job title on your resume can actually be really difficult for women to overcome.

For example, during my search for a CHRO role, I was running a $90m budget and 500-person team at Cisco. Prior to that, I had been responsible for running a $150m budget at EMC. But since I did not have a public company CHRO title on my resume, there were a number of companies that would not consider me for roles. I do think that these types of hiring biases negatively affect female candidates more than male candidates.

My advice to women who face similar barriers is to build relationships with individuals within companies you are interested in – it is always easier to get into a role when you have a referral. To build these crucial relationships, women need to actively develop strong networks and cultivate connections. If you ask people for help, especially other women, they are often more than willing to assist. This is evidenced by our recent board search – you would be amazed at the number of amazing referrals we received just by reaching out to C-suite women. Their network is astounding.

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

To understand the C-suite positions in the industry, women should speak with individuals who have the types of roles they want. Great networking opportunities like this occur at conferences and other events. Professional women with C-suite ambitions who take the time to talk to people and gain a high level of understanding about different roles are better poised to achieve their goals.

Young women can only aspire to careers in life sciences if they are familiar with a wide range of dynamic opportunities from a young age

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?

Overall, I do not think the glass ceiling in pharma is any worse than it is in other industries. However, I think board positions are slightly more difficult for women to achieve in pharma as the leadership roles continue to be dominated by males. We best influence that by continuing to influence Boards and C-suites to take a chance on a female first time Board role.

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?

To address this issue in the UK (and the US), employers and educators need to make these types of career paths more visible to women from an early stage. Speaking from my personal experience of being the mother of 14-year old twins, companies do not conduct enough outreach into schools. Teenage students, especially young women, would benefit from early exposure to a breadth of career paths in life sciences. Young women can only aspire to careers in life sciences if they are familiar with a wide range of dynamic opportunities from a young age.

Medidata as a company supports STEM education initiatives in a variety of ways, including the donation of software to the University of North Carolina in Wilmington in 2017, and plans to expand the University in kind program in the future.

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

There is an abundance of data showing that companies with more diversity – whether from an ethnic, gender or inclusion basis – are more profitable. Having balanced points of views and different experiences at the table benefit patients, customers, and company revenue. Women need more paths into senior leadership roles and board roles. Women who hold these positions can make a broader impact across the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry.