The top 10 women leaders in the pharmaceutical industry

Monique Ellis our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 18/07/2017

For centuries women have been struggling to prove their worth in the realms of science and engineering, but have made significant strides in both the laboratory and pharma business world in the last 100 years or so. In particular, the industry seen a great number of fantastic female leaders emerge who hold positions of power within some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

This increase is not, for the most part, due to any generic positive discrimination created by pharma companies, but a rapidly growing recognition of the talent and outstanding contribution women bring and will continue to bring to pharma in the future. 

It’s an extremely positive sign that compiling a list of top female leaders in pharma is a near impossible task. Instead, Proclinical is eager to highlight a selection of these great women leaders, with examples of how their fascinating work and varied careers have so positively influenced the pharmaceutical industry.

While researching these incredible women in leadership, I gained some interesting insight into how they view themselves and fellow successful women in leadership, as well as in other industries. Although viewpoints varied, it was clear that much of their success can be attributed to a mix of a sharp, focused mind, the willingness to break out of comfort zones and a generous helping of good old-fashioned hard work.

Jane Griffiths

Company Group Chairman, Europe, Middle East and Africa at Janssen

Jane Griffiths’ first position within Janssen was a sales role, from which she went on to undertake a wide range of roles across the business, gaining more and more momentum as she progressed. Today Griffiths is a stellar example of a senior female executive within pharma. From her experience, she claims that women may find it easier to get ahead in the life science and health care industry compared with others. Having faced little to no sexism so far during her impressive career, she strongly believes that the industry can look forward to a steady increase in female leadership, particularly the appointment of more women CEOs. The key to making this happen, she says, is companies becoming more family friendly and “setting up support systems that help women stay in their careers”. This could involve introducing measures such as flexible working and working from home, that would allow successful career women to better juggle their career and family life.

Azita Saleki-Gerhardt

SVP and President of Operations at AbbVie

Working alongside two other women in the leadership team, Azita Saleki-Gerhardt has worked her way through the ranks, first establishing herself at Abbott Laboratories before the company was split off to form AbbVie. Previously at Abbott,  she was VP of pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and supply. Saleki-Gerhardt believes much of her success has come from working in multiple areas and taking on responsibilities that were often outside of her comfort zone. She is a firm believer of “taking the road less travelled”, suggesting that her jump from science to business was not achieved merely by moving up the logical, established career ladder, but through initiative and daring.

Emma Walmsley


Hailed not only one of the most powerful women in the pharmaceutical industry but also among the most successful business women in the UK, Emma Walmsley has made an incredible jump from the head of GSK Consumer Care to being appointed the company’s chief executive officer in early 2017. One of just seven female CEOs in the UK FTSE 100, Walmsley heads up the largest grossing company of them all.

Walmsley’s success in the pharma industry is even more impressive as she doesn’t come from a scientific background, instead gathering her remarkable skillset from the various marketing and general management roles undertaken during her 17-year career at L’Oreal. Married with four children, Walmsley is an inspiration to many hard working, ambitious women who are anxious to see that success doesn’t have to cost them their family life.

Dr Vicki Goodman

VP and Development Lead (Opdivo/Yervoy Melanoma/GU) at Bristol-Myers Squibb

Dr Vicki Goodman has done some very important work within oncology and is most famous for taking charge of BMS breakthrough immune-oncology treatment Opdivo. Over the course of her career Goodman has used her medical training to provide invaluable insight into the molecular basis of cancer, which has helped BMS to cultivate several oncology/immuno-oncology treatments. Her advice to aspiring women is that hard work is not always the full ticket, suggesting that success is a due to deliberate forward-planning, a skill which has allowed her to maintain a great family life. She is a strong advocate of companies offering flexible working schemes to encourage career-orientated women to stay at work while raising a family.

Freda C. Lewis Hall

Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at Pfizer

Before joining industry giant Pfizer in 2009, Freda C. Lewis-Hall boasted an impressive track-record at various other pharmaceutical companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly and Vertex. At Pfizer, she runs the division that is responsible for the safe, effective and appropriate use of their medicines and vaccines. She is a frequent speaker on issues such as improving patient safety and outcomes, and the impact of mental health on families. Lewis-Hall says she is driven by her family’s belief that “discouragement and dissuasion [are] just opportunities to sharpen skills and deepen your commitment and prove that you could do anything”. This coupled with her genuine passion for her work makes her a real force within the industry. 

Aarti Shah

Chief Information Officer at Eli Lilly

Information technology leader Aarti Shah has spent her entire pharma career at Eli Lilly, undertaking a variety of roles during her 22 years at the company. She has worked to get drugs through the development, regulatory and commercial process and is grateful for the wealth of experience that this has given her. She finds that having a deep understanding of all aspects of the drug development process is instrumental in shaping success because “innovation happens at the cross section of different disciplines”. Indeed, her rise to chief information officer is thanks to her extensive drug development experience and long tenure at Eli Lilly, which affords her credibility both within the company and in the wider pharmaceutical industry.

Susan Shiff

SVP and Head of the Center for Observational and Real-World Evidence (CORE) at Merck & Co

Senior vice president Susan Shiff takes charge of Merck’s department that harnesses “real-world” data to deliver information on how the company’s medicines and vaccines are performing post-approval. Shiff is completely engaged with her work and is optimistic that accurate interpretation of real-world data could have a massive impact on the health care system.  Her outstanding career, which spans more than 30 years, features many positions of high responsibility at other leading pharmaceutical companies, including director of global development at J&J and vice president of market access, HEOR and P&R clusters at Pfizer. Shiff declares that her Merck , explaining that CORE’s ultimate goal is “to help patients get access to the health care they need in an affordable, effective, and efficient way” which is extremely topical following the recent crackdown on drug prices enforced upon the pharmaceutical industry by the US government.

Nancy Valente

VP of Global Product Development (Haematology/Oncology) at Roche’s Genentech unit

Following her father’s death from pancreatic cancer during her early life Nancy Valente decided to dedicate her career to “making a difference for patients who have very serious illness”. Since then Valente has pursued an interesting and successful career, whilst also committing a lot of time to helping women in science to advance their careers, which stems from a strong belief in the importance of learning from other strong female leaders. In fact, Valente herself was inspired by several notable women in pharma, including Sandra Honing, Roche’s CMO, who taught her that a “sharp mind that is focused on science and a great leadership style can positively influence an entire organisation”. Her own advice to fellow women is to realise the significance of networking and sharing personal goals and motivation with others, which will encourage guidance in return that could help your career to grow.

If you’re a passionate life science professional looking to reach the heights of these inspiring women, Proclinical recruits for many leading pharmaceutical companies that are looking to hire the next female leaders of the pharmaceutical industry. See our website for current executive opportunities that will kickstart your journey to the C-Suite.