Nobel cause: Talented women still face a battle to the top

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Talented women still face a battle to the top, while young girls are not encouraged to take a scientific route.


The Nobel Prize for Economics this year recognised the field of behavioural economics, going to Richard Thaler (a man) for his work on ‘nudge economics’.

This concept, that relatively subtle policy shifts encourage people to make decisions broadly in their self-interest, can be applied to the need for fostering behavioural change in business.

In the context of the Harvey Weinstein scandal currently engulfing Hollywood, a discussion on how behaviour distributes power, affects economics and drives industry is essential. If the pharma industry is to perform optimally, then we must assess what scope there is to nudge current behaviours towards greater productivity and profitability.

Some sectors of the economy will be better than others of course, but none are immune. Pharma knows it must find a way to encourage more women to rise through its ranks. Innovation cannot be fuelled by continuing to draw on the same ideas from the same sources. The need to undertake more research that gives greater priority to women’s health issues is one of many reasons why.

Pharma, where women have made great gains both in the laboratory and business setting, still has a long way to go. Among the top 20 global pharmaceutical companies, as ranked by sales in 2016, senior female executives represented just 17% of the management team.

Some industries are dominated by certain demographic groups and the scientific community is no different. Understanding why is not simple. From nurture, when leading toy manufacturers are culpable of reinforcing gender stereotypes, to the small number of young women taking science subjects at university, through to the controversy in 2015 of another Nobel scientist saying he didn’t want women in his lab – the list of prejudgements is depressingly long.

A fundamental aspect that does determine where women work, is family responsibilities. While we may typically think of women’s childcare duties, increasingly this also includes caring for elderly parents or family members with chronic conditions. The NHS model of care in the future has to focus on greater involvement of the family structure.

As one leading cardiologist put it to me, the future of the NHS is “diagnose, treat, discharge”, after which the patient will move on to self-supported home care. This can only be possible if those providing it; the women and men, are able to build their working life around these healthcare demands.

Flexible working is central to achieving this. How do we make the workplace more aligned with our modern tech-dominated lives? How do we get more companies to embrace a bit of flex?

The pharma industry, with innovation at its very heart, is well-placed to harness this energy and find better ways of accommodating the needs of parents and other carers. To quote ardent Instagram hero and flexible work campaigner, ‘Mother Pukka’, “We cannot parent like we don’t have jobs and work like we don’t have children.”

Carol Keen, a specialist physiotherapist and a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party in Sheffield notes an interesting shift taking place in men’s working needs too. She reports talking to female members whose own experience has been positive, but who caution that history may be about to repeat itself, with men coming up against barriers that women have experienced for decades. These men would also be within their rights to demand flexible working arrangements, and Carol sees some potential court cases pending.

Ultimately, when flexible working becomes embedded and more women gain positions of power, with men playing a bigger role in the lives of their young children, the benefit to industry will be there for all to see.

A cultural shift must reverberate, not just through business, but wider society. If it does, maybe 2017 will be the final year when women don’t win any of  the Nobel Awards.   


Re-flex action

There have been several changes to flexible working legislation in recent years and, at first glance, the stats* are good. On closer inspection, there is still much to address.


• 96% of employers offer at least one flexible working practice, most commonly, part-time work or reduced hours

• Common options available at 4/5 employers

• Option of working from home or making fewer business trips – 33% and 46% respectively.

• 51% of mothers that had a request for flexible working approved said they experienced negative consequences

*2015 report on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.


Claudia is a Director at Decideum. Go to





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