Is the preponderance of female executives due to the industry, the openness of Taiwanese society, or mere coincidence?
For the first time, women are taking the top position as country head or general manager in nearly all of the operations of Western pharmaceutical companies in Taiwan.
Women also tend to excel more broadly in those companies’ management teams in Taiwan. It’s a big industry, with total sales worth an estimated NT$200 billion (US$6.6 billion) annually.
Joyce Lee, general manager of Amgen Taiwan, who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for over 20 years, says she first noticed that female managers were increasing in pharmaceutical multinationals around 2015.
“At the time when I joined the industry, the leadership in the company I worked for was dominated by men,” she recalls.
Now, at Amgen Taiwan, a full 75% of the top management is female. Lee leads a team of 12 that includes only three men.
Meanwhile, Rie Nakajima, managing director of Merck, Sharp and Dohme Taiwan, says 60% of the management roles in her organization are taken on by women, while Vicky Tse, country president of Novartis (Taiwan) reports that 49% of her managers are women and 51% men.
What’s the reason behind this stellar showing for women leaders? Three possible explanations (or a combination thereof) have been suggested.
First, multinationals in the pharmaceutical sector tend to have more progressive attitudes about hiring and promotion than companies in such industries as energy, automobiles, or information communications technology.
This progressive outlook, along with initiatives and mentoring programs to support diversity, first began to be cultivated in global headquarters in Europe and the United States around two decades ago and is now trickling down to Taiwan.
Globally, Tse notes, 42% of Novartis management is female. The Swiss multinational, which aims to raise the figure to 50% by 2023, is encouraging diversity in all areas in the expectation that it will spur innovation.
By contrast, only 29% of Apple’s leadership is female, according to its website. Microsoft, according to the company’s September 2017 diversity figures quoted by Reuters, gives an even lower proportion at 19%.
Amgen’s Lee recalls that when she previously worked for another American pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, she attended a cross-industry leadership training program at the European Center for Executive Development in Fontainebleu, France at the end of 2017. She had the chance to interact with top executives from other industries, including mining, energy, and automobiles, and was surprised to find that some of them were “really, really naïve in terms of cultural sensitivity.”
She remembers feeling a sense of pride when “I realized we in pharma are quite advanced.”
Female executives interviewed for this report dismissed suggestions that the root cause of this development is that women tend to be more interested than men in healthcare or gravitate toward university degrees that train them to be managers in pharmaceutical companies.
Surprisingly, however, they generally also rejected the idea that men dominate the leadership in sectors, such as automobiles and ICT, because young males, who tend to be interested in mechanics or math rather than the humanities at school, gravitate to entry-level jobs in these industries and work their way up to the top.
“I think it has to do with the mentality of different industries in embracing diversity and inclusion,” says Irene Hsu, the General Manager of Roche Taiwan. “I don’t think other industries have a strong agenda” in that regard.”
The primacy of leadership
The main talent required for a country head is leadership ability, regardless of the nature of the industry, interviewees said. Professionals with excellent technical skills and nothing much else to offer tend to hit a ceiling.
“It doesn’t matter what your experience is – the important thing is leadership competency,” Nakajima notes. “And if you have that, you will have a chance to get into a manager role or a senior management role very quickly in this industry.”
Nakajima adds that in the international pharmaceutical industry, “of course you need to have one or two core skill sets, whether in marketing or sales or strategy, but beyond that it is really how do you empower and mobilize a large organization and make sure you have aspirational goals for the team and make sure your people are fully motivated to achieve that vision and goals.”
Nakajima, who is from Japan and has been in Taiwan for only about three months, previously worked for Toyota, the automotive company. Some female members of her management team at Merck also have backgrounds in other fields, such as finance, the public sector, and consumer goods, she notes.
She suggests that ambitious women in Taiwan are attracted to certain industries when they hear about other talented women who have been able to easily move up the ladder in those sectors. The word is out on university campuses that the pharmaceutical industry is a welcoming environment, and now many of the top female students are choosing this industry, she says.
“This is an industry that female talents aspire to be in because there are many opportunities to get to a manager or senior management position on fast track,” Nakajima says.
A second explanation offered for the presence of so many female country heads in this market relates to the character of Taiwanese society. Lee floats the idea that some pharmaceutical multinationals may have set a goal of attaining a certain percentage of female general managers globally. But in some parts of the world, such as the Middle East, cultural norms make it harder to appoint female managers. As a result, more women may end up getting promoted in more open-minded countries, such as Taiwan, in order to reach company targets.
Hsu of Roche Taiwan cites another feature of Taiwan – its good environment for raising a family due to its safety, advanced infrastructure, and high standard of living and education. Women leaders with families who are considering an overseas posting find Taiwan more attractive than countries that are less developed and have high crime rates, she says.
Another significant factor may be the openness of Taiwanese culture and its willingness to accept women in leadership roles, says Tse of Novartis, who is a native of Hong Kong. That openness may give local women the confidence to strive to be leaders, she suggests.
Taiwan has been a trailblazer for women’s rights in Asia. In President Tsai Ing-wen, it has the first female leader of a Chinese-speaking nation since the Empress Dowager Cixi. The proportion of women in the current U.S. Congress may have set a new record at nearly 25%, but it still falls far behind the 38% of female lawmakers now in the Legislative Yuan.
A recent World Bank report, “Women, Business and the Law 2019,” which tracked legal changes over the past decade across the world and measured gender discrimination in 187 countries, found that Taiwan had the best showing in Asia in terms of its progress in enshrining gender equality in laws affecting work. The report said Taiwanese women enjoyed as many of these legal rights as their counterparts in New Zealand and were better off in this respect than women in the United States.
Nakajima notes that men tend to dominate leadership in her native Japan. As a result, she says, Japanese women are very reserved in company meetings and won’t voice their ideas until the last minute. “This never happens in Taiwan,” she says.
She says she’s “fascinated” by her Taiwanese female employees, who seem to exhibit a unique blend of Eastern and Western cultures. On the one hand, Nakajima says, they are “reserved, respectful and proper,” qualities that she says are distinctly Asian. But at the same time they have a “Western mindset that when the time comes and when they feel responsible, they would not hesitate to speak up, would not hesitate to challenge.”
She describes herself as “pleasantly surprised” and “very energized” to see female talent preserving Asian culture but at the same time “climbing the career ladder in a U.S. company.”
Despite the above-mentioned highly reasonable theories, there is also a possible third explanation for the current high number of female country heads in Taiwan – that it’s at least partially a coincidence. Perhaps the next relocation cycle will produce a different gender mix.