As part of International Women's Day 2022, former pupils explore this year's theme - break the bias. Alan Main, Class of '81, shares his experience of championing women in the workplace.

I have spent over 30 years working in various marketing and general management roles, in the Life Sciences industry. Most of my work has been with large multinational companies like Bayer, Roche and Sanofi. I have been privileged to have been involved at a senior level in shaping some of these companies, including contributing towards their development in the area of diversity and inclusion (D&I).

There is now no doubt that a company/organisation that has a more diverse and inclusive workforce, at all levels, performs better, financially and culturally, than those with heavily male, white, mid-age profiles. Nothing against this particular group, but they have had a form of monopoly on the more senior roles in the past and now will have to give way to other profiles to ensure balance, growth and customer insights. This still means that this group will have a fair chance to gain or hold a senior position, but based on merit, performance and competency, not just who you know.

Shareholders and investors had been becoming more vocal about the need to improve diversity across the globe (see the spotlight on the gender pay gap in the UK for example) but the recent development of ESG topics (environmental, societal and governance) has, in my view, reduced the focus and intensity that companies needed to place on D&I. With the pandemic creating significant issues around the future of work, this topic should be squarely in the middle of the “return to work” agenda.

Although some improvements can be seen with more women reaching the pinnacle of power in the pharmaceutical industry (eg Dame Emma Walmsley CEO at GSK and Belen Garijo CEO at Merck) there is still much to do to make the playing field truly level. In this article, I would like to share two stories of my time and work in large multinational companies to give some practical examples of what can be done.

The first of those stories goes back to the mid-2010s and my role as Executive Sponsor of the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) at Bayer. While the initiative had been going for a number of years, it was predominantly a US driven project and was only open to female employees who had aspirations to follow a leadership path. The company wished to increase the impact and geographic coverage of this initiative. The major change in the project was that we started to include and invite men to participate in the events and initiatives that were run with the WLI group. We realised that you could have great conversations amongst female employees, but, in fact, the key to opening more career doors was to include and create champions amongst those who were still making the hiring decisions, men.

The second major change that the WLI team implemented, with support from the CEO downwards, was the mandatory training of the top 300 senior executives in Unconscious Bias training. This was facilitated by an external agency, but the feedback and impact of this investment was significant, finally moving up the number of female candidates and appointees for the first time.

My second story was when I joined the French company Sanofi as the head of their Consumer Healthcare business. As a member of the Executive Committee I was asked to work with the D&I team to, again, find ways to highlight this important area. My main contribution here was to become a live example of how to make Diversity and Inclusion a priority. When I joined the company, I had to create a brand new Leadership Team from the merger of two previous organizations. This allowed me to be very deliberate about hiring a diverse team. Working closely with our Chief Talent Officer and some external recruiters, we made sure that we always had strong female profiles for every job opening. We also had female interviewers on each panel. The result was that out of 16 members of the team, 60% were female (all at Senior Vice President level). We also had 9 nationalities represented and at least two members of the LGBTQI+ community. While there are many other traits and competencies that can lead to better performance, these high level characteristics are a great place to start. The selection process took a little longer and I had to convince people to keep looking for qualified candidates, but with the right attitude and persistence, this kind of team profile can be created.

One of the many advantages that I have found creating and working in a diverse team, is that I too have developed my skills and capabilities to be able to manage a more complex team environment. The rewards are rich both quantitatively and personally. I highly recommend spending time to focus on creating more balanced and diverse teams.


Blog: Alan Main shares his experience of championing women in the workplace for IWD