AbbVie's Kirsten O'Doherty: Pay and leadership gaps remain a major problem

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The pharmaceutical industry is performing better than others when it comes to gender equity, but the pay gap and number of women in senior leadership roles remains a significant structural problem, according to AbbVie's Kirsten O'Doherty.

"We see a gap on pay and the number of women in senior leadership roles," she told BiotechDispatch.

"This is based on all the data from the government's own gender equity organisation. Women represent just 17 percent of CEO roles, a low representation, and it is even lower in the biotech industry.

"We are an industry where around 60 percent of all employees are women so we should see that number in senior leadership roles. We should see women in 60 percent of management roles, 60 percent of senior leadership roles, and 60 percent of CEO roles. 

"It should be representation reflecting the industry's employee base, but we are a long way from that," she said.

Ms O'Doherty, who is one of the industry's most senior leaders, said while the life sciences industry is better than many others it is still not achieving what it should when it comes to diversity.

"We have a 10 percent across-the-board pay gap based on people in identical roles. This is an average. The data shows the gap is even higher in more senior roles.

"The data also shows that, where women have high representation in a particular management or leadership role inside a company, the average pay tends to be lower. Fewer women and the average pay is higher. This is a problem.

"There are structural issues that impact women, like maternity leave, where what can happen is people go on leave and miss pay reviews and the opportunity for promotion.

"There are assumptions made about people's willingness to travel or work long hours, and these are biases. They may not be intentional but they exist and need to be addressed. You have got to be very active in managing this as a company, not passive, and that means making sure people have pay reviews and the opportunity for promotions.

"At AbbVie, we have had a number of women promoted while on maternity leave - they apply and are successful. Creating that opportunity is very important."

The AbbVie boss said giving people choice is what matters. "Some people want to go on leave and be completely away from the office. Others prefer to stay engaged and ensure they remain aware of opportunities for things like promotions. Different people have different circumstances, but as a company, we have to ensure people do not fall behind on career progression because of institutional bias."

She continued, "Having more women in senior roles is important to achieving change but so is wider diversity. Diversity is more than gender, it includes age and experience because everyone brings their own bias to a situation. Having a diverse selection panel for a recruitment process is very important, for example."