2020's Fiercest Women in Life Sciences

As many as two million women considering a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes it's wrought. (Matt Poor/Questex Media)

2020 has seen women make tremendous gains at the top, with Kamala Harris becoming the first female vice president-elect and, on the biopharma side, Reshma Kewalramani ascending to the CEO spot at Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

Harris and Kewalramani bring many firsts, including the first Black woman, first Asian American and first daughter of immigrants to be elected vice president, and the first woman to helm a large biotech company, respectively. But corporate America is lagging behind, with gender parity out of sight in its highest ranks even as it makes slow, steady progress.

That progress is at risk, however, thanks to challenges old and new that have arisen in 2020.

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At the start of this year, female representation at the senior vice president level had grown to 28%, up from 23% in 2015, according to the annual “Women in the Workplace” report by McKinsey and Lean In, the nonprofit founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. But despite the upward trend, the report concluded that even as more women ascend the corporate ladder, others are held back at a crucial point, narrowing the pipeline of potential leaders.

“Despite gains for women in leadership, a ‘broken rung’ in promotions at the first step up to manager was still a major barrier in the past year. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: Only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted,” the report said. As a result, women held just 38% of manager positions, while men held 62%.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ways it has changed work and home life only contribute to these problems, with as many as two million women considering a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether, the report found. It is the first time its writers have seen women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men.

But the crisis could be an opportunity: “If companies make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace—and there are signs that  this is starting to happen—they can retain the employees impacted by today’s crises and create more opportunities for women to succeed in the long term,” the report said.

RELATED: Vertex joins the new-CEO brigade with Leiden jumping to exec chairman, CMO stepping up

It would be a more formal tack on what many senior women have done over the years.

When Merck KGaA’s Fernanda Rabello started her career, she was often the only woman in the room. Now, as more women leaders join the team, she works to ensure that each of them takes ownership of her role.

“Not everybody has self-confidence, and I believe as leaders we need to help them to feel that way,” said Rabello, the company’s head of global pharma manufacturing and one of this year’s honorees. “We need to create an environment where people feel comfortable to give their perspectives and opinions openly.”

Julie Kim, president of Takeda’s plasma-derived therapies unit, had similar experiences, coming up the ranks when women had to “be like men” to succeed. While some women saw these expectations as par for the course, Kim aims to make the path easier for women who come after her.

And some of the well-known challenges that have dogged women executives may not be obstacles anymore. Young women should sometimes turn a deaf ear to those stories, said Carol Lynch, president of Sandoz U.S. and Head of North America at Novartis. “Don’t look for things that don’t exist. Go out and look to achieve the impossible,” she said.

Read on to learn more about this year’s fiercest women in life sciences. They join the women honored in last year’s list, and those on the 2018 list and the 2017 list, our first to include women from the medtech sector.

— Amirah Al Idrus (email | Twitter)