Tales from the Trenches: One Female Pharma Executive’s Experiences Trying to Land a Board Seat

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US industry veteran Sharon Ayd describes her journey to becoming a pharma company board member, the various hurdles still facing female pharma executives, and the responsibility of women at the top to “pay it back” and help the next generation of female leaders.

 

As I climbed the corporate ladder, I realized early on that frequently, I was the lone woman in the room

From my earliest memories I always knew I would be a scientist and businesswoman. It wasn’t until my high school chemistry class when I had that “A Ha” moment. I understood then that I think in equations and in chemistry everything is reduced to equations. It should not come as a surprise that my career in Life Sciences began as a research scientist at Baxter International. I learned quickly that I was good at what I did and after a few short years left the sanctity of the laboratory to be responsible for running departments and later divisions in multinational biopharma companies.

 

As I climbed the corporate ladder, I realized early on that frequently, I was the lone woman in the room. I had a seat at the table with my male colleagues, my voice was listened to and my ideas appreciated. But I often wondered where my female counterparts were. That is when I realized that they few and far between. One reason for this is because they had decided to raise families whereas I chose not to. This meant that they had other competing duties and obligations that put a limit on how much time they could devote to work. Sadly, this was interpreted by many as a sign that they were not as serious about their career as I seemed to be. Another reason is because it was not instilled in women of my generation to stand out among one’s peers and aspire to reach the top.

 

As my career progressed, it became more and more difficult to reach the next rung, but the reason why is interesting. In the corporate world most people reach a point where it’s no longer about being competent, it’s about being likeable too. Chemistry is everything. This is where for some, their careers stall and or fail to progress further. I reached this inflection point in my career when I took a prominent position where I had a direct line of report to a board in the company’s home country while simultaneously having a dotted line of responsibility to a different board in North America. This vantage point gave me the opportunity to see up close how differently two boards can operate. Interestingly, both boards were composed solidly of male colleagues who had been together for about a decade. One board was very disciplined and formal whereas the other was relaxed and collegial. They were very different in their approach to decision making. One deliberated and debated a topic then reached a consensus. The other followed the leader and sided with the CEO. This experience in part is what piqued my interest in joining a board and getting involved in the world of Corporate Governance. I firmly believed I could do the job and that my bringing the view of a woman into the boardroom would benefit a company.

 

Most people today have no knowledge about the makeup of corporate boards, even in the companies they work for. These stakeholders would be surprised to learn how little diversity of thought and experience exists in the corporate boardrooms and executive suites of American businesses. Companies that have women directors and executive officers lead by example. They send a clear message that they value diversity of thought and experience.[1] Advancing women to positions of leadership is smart business.

 

In 2016 I was accepted into Women in Bio’s (WIB) inaugural class of Boardroom Ready (BRR) candidates.[2] WIB’s BRR program was modeled off of a program called Raising the Bar,[3] which started at Biogen. The concept that women needed to be educated in boardroom duties was interesting because on one hand it could imply that women might not understand such duties unless they were taught. On the other hand, it also seemed it could be a place from which to start my boardroom search. The certification program was well laid out and it certainly provided relevant information that would take one longer to accumulate than if you did not take the class.

 

It is all about knowing people who may one day recommend you for a board seat when one becomes available

After completing the certification program, I had high hopes that I would land a boardroom position in no time. Interestingly, this was not the case. I learned quickly that it was all about networking and I was new at this game. Networking for a boardroom position is trickier than networking for a job. First of all, there are far fewer boardroom positions available. It is all about knowing people who may one day recommend you for a board seat when one becomes available. If I go back to my scientific training, I equate this as similar to the odds of knowing how to find an electron in its orbit around the nucleus of a molecule at any point in time.

 

The first thing I did was start a tracking list. I wanted to be able to trace back how I ended up landing my first board position so I could say thank you to each person who helped. I joined a few select organizations such as the Women Business Leaders Association,[4] and the Private Directors Association.[5] I had heard from other women that these organizations offered support. I met women in the top five recruiting firms who conduct boardroom searches and I successfully got my profile included in their databases. As time passed, I realized that there was no single strategy that was going to work. I had to work all angles. I had to get my name out there and more importantly, I had to wait until the time was right.

 

I learned how to toot my own horn. When I had conversations with the right audiences, I made a point of saying that I was looking for a board seat. I am very happy to say that I got my first boardroom position on June 1, 2019 after networking for nearly three years. I am an Independent Director with Reglagene,[6] a biotech company in Tucson, Arizona that develops therapies to halt cancer by using DNA Quadruplex Master Switch Technology to turn cancer genes off.

 

My advice to other women who are already in the boardroom is to pay it forward and this is my plan starting now. Women need to do more to promote other women. This is something men do instinctively in business from the earliest days of their careers. It’s called sponsorship and it means putting your reputation on the line for another woman because she is qualified for a position and deserves support.

 

[1]20% By 2020 Women on Boards https://www.2020wob.com/learn/why-gender-diversity-matters

[2] Women in Bio Boardroom Ready https://www.womeninbio.org/page/BoardroomReady

[3] Biogen – Raising the Bar: Advancing Women on Boards, Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vTrBtxWSmk)

[4] Women Business Leaders Organization https://www.wbl.org/

[5] Private Directors Association https://www.privatedirectorsassociation.org/

[6] Reglagene.com

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