On January 31, seven leaders of the biopharma world flew to Washington to discuss industry politics face-to-face with President Trump.
All seven were men.
It was almost inevitable that no woman would be granted a seat at the table. Since the rise of Big Pharma, all the major players around the world have had a male at the helm.
That’s about to change. On March 31, GlaxoSmithKline’s CEO of eight years, Andrew Witty, will formally retire and take a sliver of the proverbial glass ceiling with him. His replacement, Emma Walmsley, will become the most powerful businesswoman in the United Kingdom, overseeing its third-largest company.
British-born Walmsley comes from a consumer – not science – background. She currently serves as CEO of GSK Consumer Healthcare, a 21,000-employee division that markets many over-the-counter products such as Panadol (acetaminophen) and Sensodyne toothpaste. Her education; a master’s degree in classics and modern languages from Oxford University.
Deborah Dunsire, a former CEO of Millenium Pharmaceuticals who now heads Waltham-startup XTuit Pharmaceuticals, commended the GSK board.
“It is terrific to see a woman heading GSK! Given her excellent experience, performance and skills it is gratifying to see the board of GSK not allowing her or any other candidate’s gender to influence the decision,” Dunsire said. “Not surprising to find that the GSK board has over 25% women. With more diverse boards we will see more diversity in the C-Suite.”
Lynn Seely, president and CEO of Myovant Sciences shared a similar sentiment.
“It is a major step forward for the Life Sciences industry that GSK has recognized leadership, performance, experience and not gender as key criteria for selection of a CEO. GSK’s decision is inspiring for those of us working to change the face of board rooms.”
Walmsley’s move to GSK came after a long tenure at cosmetics giant L’Oreal. In a post on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In website, she recalled when and how her career path changed.
I had been to a networking lunch with Andrew Witty the Chief Executive of GSK—someone I had long admired for his pioneering approach to the healthcare industry and reputation for values-based leadership. An inspiring conversation ended up spiralling into a job offer alarmingly fast. To be the President of GSK’s global consumer healthcare business, which operates in over 100 countries with £5 billion in sales and has thousands of employees.
Seven years later, Walmsley will succeed Witty as CEO — though the move comes with a touch of controversy. It was reported several weeks ago that GSK had approved a 25 percent cut on her paycheck.
GSK’s remuneration committee explained its rationale.
“Taking into account the fact that this is Emma’s first CEO role, reductions have been made to all elements of her remuneration package in comparison to Sir Andrew’s current arrangements. Her overall package for 2017 will be approximately 25% less than that received by Sir Andrew.”
The investor reaction to Walmsley’s hiring has also been mixed. GSK shares slid marginally when her appointment was first announced. It was viewed by some as a prioritization of its consumer healthcare division at a time when some analysts are calling for the company to be split.
That’s one of many challenges the incoming CEO will face in the years ahead. Another is the patent expiration date looming over GSK’s biggest breadwinner, Advair, a treatment for asthma and COPD. The FDA rejected Mylan’s generic version of Advair on Thursday, buying GSK a little more time.
Coincidentally, it’s Mylan trying to take a bite out of Advair sales. It’s perhaps the second largest biopharma company run by a female, Heather Bresch.
That’s two women at the top. We’re not doing too badly, right?
Lest we give up on the glass ceiling conversation, here’s timely proof from the Daily Mail that it remains incredibly relevant:
Walmsley’s credentials in this order are; mother of four, has a husband, soon-to-be-CEO of the U.K.’s third largest company. Also relevant to her new position: She “lives with her family” in a £3.7 million house in South-West London.
There’s a long way to go, but women finally have at least one seat at the table when it comes to Big Pharma.
Correction: a previous version of this article misspelled Walmsley’s name in the headline.