The Future of Work: Perspective of a Female Physician Executive

Advances in technology, a more diverse labor force, and a demand among workers for flexibility in how, when, where and for whom they work has shifted the framework of the modern workplace. The pace of change in technology is now so fast that organizations increasingly need to change more quickly than people can. In the future, more and more tasks will be performed by technology while humans will perform fewer, highly specialized tasks. The work world will consist of blended teams; leaders will need to assimilate people and technology to best meet business goals in an expeditious way. While job titles won’t matter as much as they do today, we will need a very agile workforce and versatile leaders.

My perspective on the future of work is as a physician executive in a global leadership role within the pharmaceutical industry. For the entirety of my career, I have worked in a male-dominated business environment. For more than four years in my current role, I have gradually taken on significantly more work and responsibility—essentially doubling my workload over time—without an accompanying increase in salary or change in rank. Sure, it’s discouraging. Of course, I want to be rewarded for my work—don’t we all? It isn’t always easy, but what I have gained is something perhaps more valuable: experience, agility, flexibility, a global perspective, and an even greater determination to succeed. A remarkable female leader in the pharmaceutical industry—Freda Lewis-Hall, MD, Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer, Inc.—expresses my sentiments well: “[D]discouragement and dissuasion [are] just opportunities to sharpen skills and deepen your commitment and prove that you could do anything.”

Despite the growing #MeToo movement and increased attention to the gender wage gap, there remains a pervasive glass ceiling for women in business. A 2018 study from Accenture shows that women are still 22 percent less likely to reach manager level than their male peers. After reaching an all-time high of 32 in 2017, the number of female Fortune 500 CEOs decreased to 24 in 2018. It was a decline of a full 25% in a single year and, currently, women make up just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. There has also been little recent improvement in pay disparity. According to information from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women’s median weekly full-time earnings in 2016 were 81.9 percent that of their male peers. In 2017, that dropped to 81.8 percent. There are a number of measurable social and economic barriers to equality in the workplace, such as educational disparities, job segregation, and work experience. But other factors that are more difficult to measure—such as an imbalance of domestic responsibilities, cultural biases, and outright gender discrimination—also contribute to the ongoing wage discrepancy. Creating a culture of equality can make a big difference in changing that balance. Although we are nowhere near the goal of gender equality, that kind of cultural change is the first step toward unlocking human potential. In the future of work, cultures of equality will hopefully flourish.

The pharmaceutical industry has a number of outstanding female leaders who hold positions of power within some of the largest companies in the world. One example is Emma Walmsley, who has been Chief Executive Officer at Glaxo Smith Kline—a company of approximately 100,000 employees globally—since 2017. Walmsley, who is married with four children, is one of seven female CEOs leading companies listed on the UK’s FTSE, showing that it is possible to be a career woman with a family. She is a role model for women who aspire to high leadership ranks while refusing to compromise their families.

Many pharmaceutical companies—along with their counterparts in other industries—have set up support measures that help preserve family life. Moving into the future, this will be a way that companies will stay competitive: by being “family friendly” and offering support systems that help both women and men balance their careers with their home lives. These measures may include flexible work hours and the ability to work from home, which allows employees the space to better manage both their careers and their family life.

Though the road forward remains an uphill one, the need for greater respect and more high-level business opportunities for women is a public conversation we have begun. I trust that the future of work will bring continued gains for women in the workplace.