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MPW 2023: Women have made great strides in the healthcare sector, but it’s still a work in progress

The healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors are experiencing a positive shift with more and more women making big strides. But, it is still a challenge to reach leadership positions

When Namrata Vardam was researching career paths after her BSc in Zoology, followed by an MBA, she picked hospitality sales. But selling hotel rooms and banquets left her hungry. She switched to pharmaceutical sales. Today, Vardam, 33, is a product executive at Entod Pharma, a specialist in ophthalmic and ENT medicines, but has switched from sales to marketing. She is happy with her choice: she has a meaningful role in connecting science with people. “I’m fascinated by the blend of science and communication. The pharma industry offers a chance to make complex science understandable to a wider audience,” says Vardam.

Healthcare and pharmaceuticals are being transformed by the entry of women at all levels—women who are creating a new era of inclusivity and diversity.

Ameera Shah
Promoter & MD
Metropolis Healthcare


Possibly more than any other sector, India’s healthcare and pharma have been known for a few decades now for women at the top, whether they were joining the family business (Sangita Reddy and her three sisters at Apollo Hospitals) or creating a world-class business (Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon).

More women are getting boardroom seats, as consultancy EY says in its October 2022 report ‘Diversity in the Boardroom: Progress and the Way Forward’. The EY report says India has made substantial progress, with women accounting for an average of 18 per cent of board seats in 2022, up from just 6 per cent in 2013.

This number, based on companies in the BSE 200 index, puts India among those with less than 25 per cent, such as Singapore (24.1 per cent), Brazil (18.2 per cent), Hong Kong (17.9 per cent), and Japan (14.7 per cent).

In India, the life sciences sector took the lead, with women holding 24 per cent of board seats in October 2022, followed by the media & entertainment sector. 

The Beckoning   

Today’s educational landscape offers more opportunities for women in areas such as medicine and pharmacy. And not just in entry- or mid-level jobs: more women are getting into boardrooms at pharma and healthcare companies. While some get board seats by inheriting a business, others are gunning for management jobs. 

Why are so many women getting into the healthcare and pharma industry? Is it driven by a personal calling, societal dynamics, or the sector’s unique opportunities?

Meenakshi Nevatia, Country President & Managing Director of Pfizer India, a subsidiary of the US major, says that given the extensive footprint of global pharma companies in India and the rise of their Indian counterparts, the sector offers women plenty of roles and career opportunities, ranging from office-based roles to customer-facing ones that require travel.

“We tend to see a greater diversity in the office-based roles including research & development, medical affairs, marketing, human resources, and finance primarily due to the predictability of working hours and the flexibility in working from home as needed,” says Nevatia, an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, with extensive experience in sales, marketing, and business leadership positions at McKinsey and Novartis Pharma, among others.

Ameera Shah, Promoter and Managing Director of Metropolis Healthcare, which runs a chain of diagnostic laboratories, slices the answer into two segments: women joining at the junior level and those in leadership positions. “The former’s motivation to have a career in the healthcare or pharma sector stems from job safety, job security, the absence of rigid timelines, and more predictable working hours, leading to a healthier work-life balance,” says Shah. “Moreover, the industry fosters a culture of care and empathy, creating a female-friendly environment,” she says. Shah says women looking for leadership roles in pharma and healthcare need business sense and the ability to integrate scientific principles into the business landscape.

According to government data, women are significant in India’s healthcare system, contributing to 70-80 per cent of the services. In India, women have historically dominated nursing and allied health professions.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
Executive Chairperson
Biocon and Biocon Biologics


Dr Vandana Lal, Executive Director at diagnostic chain Dr Lal PathLabs Ltd, a family business that has turned professional, says: “As the healthcare sector evolves, many women are moving from purely technical to techno-managerial roles and excelling as executive leaders.” An MBBS with an MD in pathology, Lal says many women are drawn to healthcare because of an intrinsic desire to positively impact people’s lives and contribute to the community’s well-being.

“The ability to serve others gives women a sense of fulfilment and career satisfaction…. They have better soft skills, and the healthcare field, being an essential service, requires such a dedicated workforce,” says Lal, whose husband, Dr Arvind Lal, son of the founder, is Executive Chairman. The firm has nearly 1,600 female employees, about 28 per cent of the workforce. Of these, around 1,200 women hold technical positions, including those of doctors and technicians.

Arushi Jain
Akums Drugs & Pharmaceuticals


Arushi Jain, Director of Akums Drugs & Pharmaceuticals, one of the largest contract manufacturers in India, says there is no single factor why women are attracted to healthcare and pharma. “The presence of women in healthcare and pharma is the result of a combination of personal calling, societal changes, and the diverse opportunities this field presents,” says Jain, an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad and a chartered accountant. 

Moreover, societal dynamics have evolved to support gender diversity in these fields, with increasing opportunities and encouragement for women in healthcare. “Women are drawn to this sector not only for the chance to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives but also due to the potential for professional development and access to leadership positions,” says Jain.

Why women outshine men 

Shah of Metropolis, a company founded by her father that she helped get listed in 2019, says women bring conscientiousness and sincerity, which align well with the healthcare and pharma sectors’ emphasis on empathy and compassion. “But women have historically confronted hurdles in these industries, especially at senior levels, which have traditionally been male-dominated and patriarchal,” says Shah. “Age is another factor to consider, given that many healthcare professionals are older, and being a young woman can sometimes pose challenges. Nevertheless, over the past two decades, I have witnessed significant strides in addressing these challenges, with an increasing array of opportunities and a more inclusive environment for women in healthcare and pharma businesses,” says Shah. 

Preetha Reddy
Vice Chairperson 
Apollo Hospitals Enterprise


There is a significant female presence at the junior level, comprising around 75 per cent of the workforce.

Sangita Reddy, the youngest of Apollo’s Founder & Chairman Prathap C. Reddy’s four daughters, all in the management, says meaningful inclusion of women is not just a moral imperative but a strategic necessity as we “navigate the evolving landscape of healthcare and pharma”. For decades, healthcare has been one of the best industries for women by several yardsticks, she adds. 

The inherent ability of women to nurture gives them an added advantage. “Handling complexity and customer-centric empathy add to critical skills that I have always found valuable for healthcare leaders, and women excel in both these areas,” says Reddy.

Meenakshi Nevatia
Country President & Managing Director
Pfizer India


With women running many healthcare and pharma companies, gender diversity has improved in the sector. For instance, Shah says Metropolis aims to maintain a 50-50 ratio overall. Metropolis has initiatives like ‘The Full Circle – Career 2.0 for Women’ that support women who have taken career breaks and are looking to re-enter the workforce. The programme provides flexible work options, including work-from-home, hybrid, part-time, full-time, hourly, or project basis. “Our consistent focus on diversity has resulted in a healthy mix, with 42 per cent women representation at the junior level, 41 per cent at the middle level, and 26 per cent at the senior level,” says Shah.

Samina Hamied
Executive Vice Chairperson


The ‘Global Gender Diversity 2023’ report by Boardroom Insiders, a consultancy offering executive intelligence, says things have looked up for women at the top since 2014. Although the improvement is relatively minor (around 7-8 per cent), it is part of a positive trend. 

Anuradha Acharya, Founder and CEO of MapMyGenome, which offers DNA-based counselling for health issues, says women have a lot to offer in this sector because they bring not only their technical expertise but also their compassion, love, care, and multitasking skills. “These are essential qualities for understanding the customer’s needs and delivering solutions that meet them,” says Acharya, an IIT Kharagpur graduate with a Master’s in physics from the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Sangita Reddy
Joint Managing Director
Apollo Hospitals Enterprise


Similarly, Apollo Hospitals is in the 50 per cent-plus club with a board composition boasting equal gender representation. “The healthcare industry must prioritise gender parity… Redefining power dynamics, increasing women’s presence in decision-making roles, and implementing supportive policies for working mothers are crucial steps,” says Reddy. 

Pfizer is also trying to drive gender balance across all its functions. At its manufacturing plants in Goa and Visakhapatnam, it has brought women into the workforce by supporting them with their education, housing and building a sense of community, Nevatia says. 

Helping those with physical disabilities is another area tailor-made for women. The World Health Organization says nearly 1.3 billion people, or 16 per cent of the world’s population, experience significant disabilities.

Shobana Kamineni
Executive Vice Chairperson
Apollo Hospitals Enterprise


Shilpi Kapoor, CEO of BarrierBreak & 247 Accessible Documents, a digital accessibility firm, emphasises the significant presence of women in roles such as trainers, counsellors, therapists, and accessibility professionals. Women comprise 48 per cent of the team at BarrierBreak. 


Challenges in passing the torch 

Apollo’s Reddy can’t agree more that while progress has been made in women’s representation, there is a persistent gap, especially in internal promotion rates. “To enhance women’s leadership, collaborative efforts are essential, focussing on promoting women across various levels and functions,” she says.

Suchitra Ella
Managing Director
Bharat Biotech


Jain says women face some challenges and advantages in general. “One challenge is the gender imbalance, particularly in leadership roles, which can sometimes lead to a lack of representation and potential biases. This challenge is not specific to this industry but is applicable across industries. Also, making valuable connections and finding mentors can be challenging for women leaders,” says Jain. “They may not have the same access to important networks as men do, which can make it harder for them to build meaningful relationships that can help them in their leadership journey.” 

Pfizer’s Nevatia says things are changing for the better, but slowly. Women leaders in healthcare and pharma are showing the way. “The more an organisation can mirror the demographics of its target customers, the more likely it is to understand the unmet need truly,” says Nevatia. She says diversity is a long way off in areas such as manufacturing and customer-facing roles, primarily due to the need for early morning or late evening travel on occasion that comes with these roles.

To see women workers streaming into factories is good. Why not imagine streams of women moving up to the boardroom?  



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