Promoting women in science

December 19, 2013


December 19, 2013

Dr Annalisa Jenkins

Executive vice president, head of global research and development

Dr. Annalisa Jenkins is global head of R&D at Merck Serono, the biopharmaceutical division of Merck, Darmstadt Germany. Dr. Jenkins was recruited into the company as the global head of development and medical in 2011 by Stefan Oschmann, who was CEO at the time and is now a member of the Merck Executive Board.

After earning her MD, Dr Jenkins began her career as a Royal Naval Physician rising to the rank of Surgeon Lieutenant Commander and serving as the first female physician on the front-line during combat. She started a family while still in the Navy, and then left the service to enter the biopharma industry in 1997, joining Bristol-Myers Squibb.


The only female R&D head of a leading 20 global biopharma company – and former navy surgeon lieutenant commander with front line experience – is fighting for the right of women to stand alongside men in business as in battle

Who is leading R&D throughout the world today? The short answer is “men, basically.” Men in life sciences senior management outnumber women about 6-to-1 (or 83% versus 17%). And who’s leading R&D in the biopharma industry, specifically? This time the answer is “men, almost exclusively.” Among the world’s top 20 biopharma companies by revenue, just one has chosen a woman to head its R&D efforts.

As that one woman, I can say unequivocally that the members of my gender are vastly under-represented at leadership levels in biopharma and, for that matter, in life sciences R&D organisations generally. For healthcare alone, there are at least two serious consequences of this imbalance.

Firstly, as R&D teams translate scientific discoveries into new medicines, they are proceeding with the unique leadership skills of only half of the potential pool of talent. The missed business opportunities here are compelling.

In the US, for instance, women make 80% of healthcare choices for their families. With more women in biopharma leadership roles, companies can achieve a better understanding of the consumers who make most of the decisions in the healthcare marketplace. Better understanding brings with it sharper insights, stronger decisions and, ultimately, more advances in healthcare globally.

Secondly, as the work of creating innovative, safe and effective new drugs advances, it does so largely without the value of the unique perspectives women can bring to important health issues and healthcare decisions.

For example, in disease areas such as infertility, breast cancer, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, where women are at much higher risk than men, a firsthand knowledge of the relevant physiology and the physical, social and emotional challenges can contribute to the creation of new therapies that will make a difference.

Healthy balance
People sometimes ask me: Is gender favouritism in an industry led by men a reason for the imbalance? No doubt. But in talking with other female physicians and scientists, I’ve learned that the career-family dilemma is definitely the most powerful reason. In fact, about 29% of women say they worry that having a career in science will keep them from having a family.

In 1997, when I entered the industry by joining Bristol-Myers Squibb, I began to mentor and sponsor female colleagues with exceptional skills and strong ambitions, encouraging them to build a career but also to maintain a reasonable work-family balance.

To date, I've had the pleasure of supporting hundreds of talented women in science. I have benefited greatly from men who have sponsored me, and I have in turn increasingly focused on paying this forward to the next generation of women leaders who are trying hard to have it all—a career and a family.

I acknowledge that combining family and career has not been easy for me personally. While I’ve achieved a very senior role, I’ve been away from my children a good deal over the years. But today, the solutions to support women as they strive for work-life balance are within reach.

More and more biopharma companies are establishing programs that enable mothers to succeed at home as well as at work. My own company, Merck Serono, offers flexible work hours and telecommuting. And many companies offer onsite daycare programs.

Yet while many companies are providing greater support for work-life balance, very few have created practical initiatives to ensure that women are promoted at anything like the rate of men.

Thus, I remain deeply committed to supporting young mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives as they build families and increasingly juggle the broader dynamics of getting the balance right. In parallel, I have an equally important focus on sponsoring and developing them professionally as they pursue their academic, clinical and leadership ambitions. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU) or any other member of The Economist Group. The Economist Group (including the EIU) cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this article or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the article.

Enjoy in-depth insights and expert analysis - subscribe to our Perspectives newsletter, delivered every week