Women account for half of the Portuguese labour force, but Portugal lags behind the European average for women in top positions, as a 2023 McKinsey study shows. However, Portuguese pharma appears to buck this trend, with several women assuming leadership positions within the country. Indeed, over half of the 13 pharma MNC affiliate heads interviewed for this report – those of Boehringer Ingelheim, J&J Innovative Medicine, Lundbeck, Novo Nordisk, Sanofi, STADA, and Teva – are women. Read on for some of their most pertinent leadership insights.


Breaking Down the Barriers

Teva’s Marta Gonzalez Casal observes that the cultural barriers to creating more women leaders in Portugal are gradually being eroded. “There are many talented women leaders, but sometimes they may not be as forward in pursuing leadership roles,” she explains.

“Recognizing their potential and offering the support and encouragement they need can make a significant difference. Culturally, Portugal has long held a more hierarchical approach, which might have made it challenging for some women to step into leadership positions. However, the shift towards a more inclusive mindset is underway, and it’s rewarding to witness women thriving when given the confidence and trust they deserve.”

“Having had discussions with women in the life sciences sector, we acknowledge that societal attitudes towards women in leadership roles are evolving. In life sciences, there is already a significant presence of women. The goal should not be limited to achieving a 50/50 gender balance but rather to strive for even greater representation, considering the substantial female presence in the life sciences sector across various roles. The aim is to foster an environment where women in leadership positions are not just accepted but celebrated for their valuable contributions.”


The Dividends of Diversity

As Helena Freitas of Sanofi outlines, a more diverse team can lead to better results across a range of metrics. “Last year, while on maternity leave, I was promoted to Country Lead, demonstrating Sanofi’s commitment to diversity by choosing a Portuguese woman for the role, even during her maternity leave,” she asserts.

“This experience has reinforced my belief in the value of embracing diverse talents and backgrounds and fostering an inclusive environment where everyone has equal opportunities to contribute to our shared success. Sanofi’s dedication to diversity extends beyond gender balance to encompass a broader range of perspectives, including race, culture, and sexual orientation. It is not about meeting a predetermined balance but acknowledging the unique strengths that individuals can bring to the organisation. I passionately believe that true diversity leads to quality outcomes, benefiting projects and initiatives across the organization.”


People & Time

Over at German firm STADA’s affiliate, General Manager Ana Fereira highlights how the twin factors of people and time have shaped her leadership approach. “From day one, I realized the paramount importance of individuals, not just externally with patients but equally within our team,” she says. “It’s an understanding that extends beyond the workplace to the families of our team members because, in caring for our team, we are inherently responsible for the well-being of their families. The realisation that our personal and professional lives are deeply intertwined made me accountable for the entire cluster of responsibilities that each person carries in their lives.”

Fereira continues, “Another significant lesson revolves around time. While the concept of work-life balance is often considered a cliche, the essence of balance, particularly regarding time for ourselves and others, is profoundly important. It goes beyond just a division of hours; it’s about understanding that we all operate at different paces. Some individuals require more time to establish trust. Acknowledging and respecting these differences became one of my most valuable lessons. Time has become a central element in fostering a work environment where everyone can thrive at their own pace.”


A Continuous Process

Sara Barros came to the Danish CNS-focused firm Lundbeck after several management positions at larger pharma companies. She took on the leadership of its local affiliate – her first country manager role – about three years ago.

“Leadership,” she feels, “is a continuous process of assessment and re-evaluation. The ability to glean insights, whether positive or negative, from the experiences of those around you enriches decision-making capabilities. In essence, leadership is an ongoing journey of learning and adaptation.”

Barros adds that “Another significant takeaway from my experience over the past three years is the imperative for leaders to make immediate decisions, especially tough ones. Navigating through these challenges, I have come to understand the critical need for leaders to be comfortable with risk assessment and capable of inspiring action in others.”


Seizing Opportunities

Being a GM was never part of Sandra Marques’ career plan. Having joined Boehringer Ingelheim Portugal in the late ‘90s, over the next 14 years she launched brands in hypertension and COPD as well as worked as head of marketing with teams in France, Spain, and Italy. Taking on the role of GM in 2013, she became only the second woman and first Portuguese national to hold the position.

“Although this was not always part of my career plan, I am very proud of having taken the leap,” explains Marques. “I hope my own success and what we have collectively achieved as a team have shown that local talents can be successful leaders.”