We spoke to four leaders of research and business operations at WuXi AppTec to discuss their views on Women in Science in the 21st century.
WuXi AppTec provides a broad portfolio of R&D and manufacturing services that enable companies in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industries worldwide to advance discoveries and deliver ground breaking treatments to patients. Founded in 2000, the company now has over 30 sites globally, where it employs more than 19,000 people – half of whom are women. Sarah Harding spoke to four of them, to hear their thoughts on working in the pharmaceutical industry in the 21st century.
Having broken the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’, these women are great role models for other young people entering the pharma industry. So it was good to hear that they all now mentor young people themselves, either formally or informally.
As noted by Yu Lu, Vice President of Business Operations at WuXi STA, “WuXi’s work force is generally very young. I have developed close relationships with many young women who I work with and consider myself as an advocate for them as much as I can.”
“I always see it as my duty to raise new talent,” agreed Gundel Hager, Managing Director at CRELUX. “I participate in various university and non-university programs to mentor young scientists. I am a certified trainer for biotechnicians and, if my time allows, I actively participate in the training of the young generation, especially in the area of successfully combining career and family.”
Xiao-Ping Dai, Vice President, Process & Technology Development, Chief Technologist at WuXi Advanced Therapies, believes that “Helping young people develop is a career goal for me, from which I can derive great personal satisfaction. Helping young people succeed also strengthens our organization and improves effectiveness.”
This commitment to helping young people may stem – at least in part – by the strong role models these women had themselves, early in their own careers. They were effusive in the praise of the people who had encouraged them to be confident, ask questions, and make the most of the opportunities presented to them. In years past, many men and women encouraged our panel by setting good examples and impacting their lives for the better. Numerous characters were mentioned by name and discussed fondly.
And if remaining in someone’s thoughts as an inspirational and inspiring memory isn’t sufficient incentive for you to take on a mentoring role yourself, perhaps this additional comment will induce you to consider encouraging your younger colleagues to make the best of themselves.
“I routinely tell my newer managers who are looking for openings to the next level of leadership that they must first open doors for their team to step into, in order for the doors above them to open,” one of our panel members said. “When you have a successor ready to take your place, it is then that you are ready to occupy a new place on your own career path.”
Although they were fortunate to have the encouragement from key people in their lives, there were still challenges to be overcome on their ways up the career ladder.
“As a woman,” said Xiao-Ping Dai, “perhaps we need to not only be twice as good but also do twice as much… and can be even more challenging as an Asian woman.”
Gundel Hager agreed, saying “My experience taught me that one has to be multiple as good in order to achieve similar career goals as male colleagues.”
Nevertheless, most of the panel agreed that the situation for women in the workplace has improved in the 21st century.
“I think it is easier for women to progress their career today than 15 or 20 years ago,” said Yu Lu, who is the mother of two daughters. “Looking back the toughest years in my career path were the ﬁrst few years after my younger daughter was born. I was physically and mentally exhausted all the time. As my daughters grew older I gradually found myself again! There is a much more mature childcare support environment in the society today than 20 years ago, and there are many more well-respected women leaders in every aspect as a consequence.”
“We have seen more and more women taking important leadership roles today than ever,” added Jinling Chen. “There has been a gradual culture change that makes it more acceptable for women to be leaders.”
Jinling Chen noted that the gender challenge appeared quite late in her career path. “I did not feel the difference career wise as a student, a scientist, and even in middle level management positions. However, I did see that it is more difﬁcult for women than men advancing to senior leadership roles. Some had difﬁculties to believe in woman’s ability to understand complex issues and to make decisions decisively, even when we have a strong track record to demonstrate ourselves.”
It is important that women are encouraged to reach higher levels of management – not just for the moral arguments of equality, but also because they bring particular skills to the table, which offer added value to the companies that employ them.
Xiao-Ping Dai was very clear that, “Most women leaders are hardworking individuals and have strong emotional intelligence. If they have an ‘added value’, on top of technical expertise, it is the ability to understand people better.”
The other panellists appeared to agree, echoing this sentiment in their own ways.
“In general women are more ‘sensitive’, which means they tend to pay more attention to the needs of the people around them, whether that’s a colleague or a customer,” said Yu Lu. “Women also tend to have stronger analytical skills and pay more attention to details.”
“Often, women turn to be good listeners,” said Jinling Chen. “It helps us to understand others in a deeper level and allows us to bring the best out of everyone. It is good for building a cohesive team. Women also tend to pay more attention to the need of our end users – the patients.”
“Women are great team players and communicators and, in combination with the multiple as good professional competence, they will drive their teams to success,” agreed Gundel Hager.
Another factor that emerged during this discussion was ego. It was suggested that perhaps one advantage women bring is that they don’t typically require as much credit or recognition for the support they offer. However, this can be a two-edged sword. The suggestion that women don’t always require or demand the recognition for their successes could be indirectly related to how senior positions end up predominately ﬁlled by males. Perhaps women need to advocate for themselves a bit more.
This will be a familiar theme for anyone who has attended a women’s networking event. Most women’s natural tendency is towards modesty for their achievements, but we need to learn to ensure that those achievements are recognised and rewarded – not just for ourselves, but for those around us too.
“All women should conﬁdently seize opportunities and move ahead without fear,” advised Gundel Hager. “When it comes to self-marketing, women are allowed to put on a little more weight; too much modesty can make them lose chances.”
“Women need to speak up and stand up for themselves in the work place,” agreed Yu Lu.
“We must believe in ourselves, continue learning, and empower ourselves and people around us,” added Jinling Chen.
Some challenges remain for women in the workplace but our panel is living proof that advances can be made with the right support and encouragement, and in the right environment. Certainly, our four panel members all believe that WuXi AppTec is dedicated to opening opportunities for both women and men.
“WuXi is a recognized leader in our industry and has been growing at a fast pace for years which created many growth opportunities for women and for men working here,” said Yu Lu. “My own career path at WuXi is a great example. I joined STA, a subsidiary of WuXi AppTec, 7 years ago, in a business development role. As STA’s business grew steadily, there was a need to set up many new functions which were never existed before. I took on the challenge and started to set up one new function after another. Today, I lead a wide range of business and operational functions. I’m honoured to be part of a team including many great women leaders in both technical and business field. The leaders at WuXi are chosen and further developed based on his/her ability, not gender.”
“At WuXi all employees get the same chances – it is the qualification and leadership that drive the success,” agreed Gundel Hager.
“WuXi provides women leaders room to grow their careers. The senior leaders are open minded in promoting women leaders to the C-suites,” added Xiao-Ping Dai.
However, women need to help themselves – and each other – to ensure that their achievements are recognised and rewarded with career progression.
“Women can be great leaders and, in combination with many good professional competencies, they can drive their teams – on every management level – to exceptional performances,” said Gundel Hager.
“Dream big, and embrace it,” concluded Xiao-Ping Dai.
I think we could all benefit from taking that advice.
By Sarah Harding, PhD - 16th September 2019