Breaking the Mold in Research & Development with Women
By Medline Newsroom Staff | March 22, 2017
Investment in research and development is booming, especially in healthcare. From 2013 to 2015, medical and health companies grew their R&D by more than 13 percent.¹ Despite that growth, a Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association study showed men outnumber women about 6-to-1 in R&D.² The makeup of Medline’s R&D lab is breaking the mold with more women than men on the microbiology team. Management is even split and Lara Simmons is president of Quality Assurance & Regulatory Affairs which oversees R&D. Simmons explains what it will take to diversify a field dominated by men.
What steps did you take to get to your leadership role at Medline?
It’s best to look back at the beginning before I joined Medline 25 years ago. After college, I had an internship at a global biopharmaceutical company. That’s where I had a female supervisor, but she left to work at Medline, eventually reaching out to me to join her. I’ve worked with this individual ever since and she has had a huge influence on my career. I’ve spent time in different divisions, setting up quality systems and helping out wherever needed. About 10 years ago, I was promoted to my current role. The need for R&D grew more evident. We originally estimated we’d save the company about 30 percent over the cost of outside testing. In reality, it’s closer to 50 percent in many cases.
Medline’s R&D doesn’t mirror the national landscape. Why do you think Medline has been able to achieve this kind of diversity?
It wasn’t by conscious design. First, it helps when the organization is led by a female, but really we just look for the best candidate in terms of technical ability and “fit” with the Medline culture. It is interesting that the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) found a 66 percent increase in ROI capital for Fortune 500 companies that had at least three women directors.3 Unfortunately, men are dominating in senior management in life sciences. Women hold 17 percent of senior management positions and 34 percent of middle management positions.²
Surveys show almost one-third of women in the United States plan to leave their job in science, engineering or technology within a year. How do companies change that trend?
I think a lot of it has to do with burn out. Working in a R&D environment can be a lot of repetition. It also can be discouraging because many R&D products or projects may not pan out. The data points to women historically being less likely than average to be happy with their work life balance. We also have to be sensitive to flexibility, as well as make sure our team members recognize the career growth and potential we have to offer. The Harvard Business Review published a report on flexibility in the workplace for retaining female employees. In their research, 21 percent of women felt using flexible work arrangements would impact their chances of being promoted.4
What changes can executives and managers make to diversify their workforce?
First, and foremost, you have to identify the key qualities you’re looking for and not lock yourself into a mindset that certain roles fit a certain gender or type. You have to be willing to look at the requirements and support needed and assure that you can provide that on a consistent basis.
What initiatives or mentoring programs do you take part in to encourage more women to seek this career path?
At Medline, we’ve sponsored shadowing programs so that women in college, or in some cases high school, can come and see what a day in this career looks like. We sponsor our team members to attend symposiums for women in leadership to not only help them develop, but to network and potentially identify talent we can add to our team. We also take the approach that if you are a current team member, and you want to try a certain job path – like calibration – we will do anything to help support your goals. Keri Larsen asked to be on the calibration team for Medline. She is now in the field of metrology, which a recent Calibration Community survey found is made up of only six percent of women. At Medline, we’ve had phenomenal support from the executive group for this team, and we continue to grow and add new talent and new testing capabilities. At the end of the day it’s those qualities that matter most.
1. U.S. Investments in Medical and Health Research and Development, https://www.researchamerica.org/sites/default/files/2016US_Invest_R%26D_report.pdf, Research America, Fall 2016.
2. The Progress of Women Executives in Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology: A Leadership Benchmarking Study Abstract, https://www.hbanet.org/sites/hba/files/docs/Research_Studies/EDGE-White-Paper-Abstract-v2.pdf, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association.
3. 2014 A Boom for Biotech, but a Bust for Women, https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/awis.site-ym.com/resource/resmgr/Fact_Sheets/AWIS_Fact_Sheet_BioTech_2014.pdf, Association for Women in Science.
4. Flexibility Key to Retaining Women, http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4779.html, Harvard Business Review, May 2, 2005.