Women of pharma: Hanneke Schuitemaker


Global Head of Viral Vaccine Discovery and Translational Medicine at Janssen on the advantage of quick thinking and curiosity

In a special series of exclusive PharmaTalent interviews we shine a light on the women leading, inspiring and blazing a trail within industry.

Pf’s Political Correspondent, Claudia Rubin, wrote recently about how pharma has a long way to go in offering equal career opportunities to women, citing the fact that among the top 20 pharmaceutical companies, as ranked by sales in 2016, senior female executives represented just 17% of the management team. ‘Pharma knows it must find a way to encourage more women to rise through its ranks’, Claudia wrote.

According to the Pf People 2017 Perception, Motivation and Satisfaction Survey Report, the pharma industry is represented by more females than males, at 58% to 42%. Women in pharma also appear to have greater longevity, with the survey finding that more than 15% of female respondents have been working in the pharmaceutical industry between 11 and 20 years.

Women’s roles are evolving, and pharma is one industry where they can rise through the ranks, as the success stories of the inspirational women featured in our new series show.

How did your path to pharma begin and how did you get to where you are today?

I had a quite successful career in academia when I was asked to join Crucell (now Janssen Vaccines, part of Johnson & Johnson). It took me quite some time to make up my mind and to prepare myself for the jump to biotech. The new job was quite different from my job in academia where I had a lot of authority and long term experience. In the new job, I had to lead people who were much more knowledgeable on their topic than me at the time. But I rapidly realised that this was a great opportunity, and that I could learn from them while focussing on the higher strategic level. Two weeks after I had started in my new job, the public announcement was made that Johnson & Johnson was planning to acquire Crucell. This was music to my ears as being part of a larger and more established healthcare company meant that we would be able to work more effectively to actually deliver vaccines to the world and improve people’s health. After the acquisition, I was asked to lead the viral vaccines portfolio in the new organisation.

Which character traits and talents have been most instrumental to your success?

I consider myself a fast thinker, I can think out of the box. And I am curious, and I ask the right questions that help drive the process. That for sure has helped me to where I am now. On top of that, I can motivate people, motivate teams. And people motivate me. I lead a group of outstanding people that speak up and step up. Perhaps most importantly, I pay a lot of attention to the opinions of the people I trust.

Do women have to work harder to rise through the pharma ranks?

I am not sure if it is harder work but I do think that women sometimes feel pressure to act a little bit ‘like a man’, in order to be seen and taken seriously by senior management. I also think there can be a tendency for men to hire men, and for women to hire women, reflecting their appreciation of what each gender brings to the table. But ultimately, we have learned that we need gender balance and diversity in the workplace. I inherited a quite diverse team and am very happy to experience that. It absolutely is a huge benefit.

Is there a ‘glass ceiling’ for women in the pharma industry?

Historically, there’s no doubt about that. Today, I do think things are changing, and changing faster than you might think. Even I am pleasantly surprised when I see the numbers. At Johnson & Johnson, 44% of the company’s employees are at manager and director level and 32% of our VPs are women. That marks tremendous progress. That said, this company has always been a trendsetter – in 1886, 14 employees started Johnson & Johnson. Eight of them were women, brought on by James Wood Johnson.

Now, as a whole, this industry does have a long way to go. I do see that women are better represented in certain areas compared to others. Leadership teams in pharma R&D consist mainly of men. The good thing is that there is increasing awareness for improving diversity and inclusivity. We just need to ensure that this trend extends to higher level leadership teams.

How can the pharma industry attract and retain more senior female executives?

To be candid, by hiring and promoting more of us! The only way for the industry to become more female friendly is by installing a greater proportion of female leadership. It’s the same challenge we see in many other industries too. This isn’t unique to pharma and it isn’t ‘rocket science’. The solution is pretty simple.

How can more young women be encouraged to take more STEM subjects at school and university?

By getting rid of the gender stereotypes. We need to emphasise that boys and girls can be equally good in STEM subjects, as I myself can attest to. And we need to get rid of certain stereotypes about STEM subjects themselves – because they can be FUN.

What qualities and talents does a woman entering the pharma industry need?

As with men, we need a whole range of different talents. We need people who can think out solutions and translate ideas in actual data that prove we are on the right track. We also need people who can lead, who can assign the right tasks to the right people. We need people who get the most out of their internal teams, and who work well with external contractors. People who understand regulations for testing in humans. Who can find the fastest route without compromising on safety for our volunteers and patients. I could go on forever. There are a lot of different tasks that need to be fulfilled optimally for our enterprise to be successful. And all these disciplines need leaders at the top. And leaders need to think fast, dare to take informed decisions, dare to take strategic decisions, and dare to trust their teams.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

The first one came from my biology teacher in high school who on the evening of my diploma ceremony asked what I was going to do next. I was planning to go to medical school. But I told him that I was mostly interested in medical research, and not so much in direct patient care. He advised me to study medical biology, advice I took immediately and which I have never regretted.

The other major piece was the encouragement not to be afraid to give up my academic career and go to pharma. One of my previous bosses said, “don’t worry too much, you will be successful anywhere”. That gave me the faith I needed at that time to make the move. And although it is extremely hard work, I love every bit of it. I have never regretted that I left academia. Working with Johnson & Johnson is exciting as the company has a great corporate social responsibility. To be allowed to work on an HIV vaccine, after working in academia for 20 years on the pathogenesis of this tough viral infection, is a unique opportunity. And also the commitment that the company made, to develop an Ebola vaccine, the support we received to accelerate this program during the outbreak in 2014… That’s what makes me tick.

What does your professional future look like?

Of course, I don’t have a crystal ball. But just for starters – I hope to be around at Johnson & Johnson when the efficacy data on our investigational HIV vaccine become available in the not-too-distant future (and I hope those data are positive!). And I am also extremely excited about our other vaccine programs that are planned to deliver efficacy data before and after that time. I would like to be in a position to further guide and support the leaders of the future and share my experiences. My curiosity will always win, along with the strong desire to be part of Johnson & Johnson’s vision to develop potentially life-saving vaccines and improve global health. My ultimate hope is that, working with our incredible partners, we can protect people around the world who are vulnerable to disease. That’s the goal – that’s what I want to see in my future.

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