Bridging the Gender Gap in STEM Careers: A Conversation with Pfizer’s Rod MacKenzie
When it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers, it’s understood that women are underrepresented in the field. In the U.S., women make up almost half of the workforce, but only occupy about 27% of STEM workers. Globally, men continue to dominate the STEM workforce, with women making up less than a third of those employed in scientific research and development.
In order to help close this gender gap in STEM, many leaders in the field are working toward empowering and uplifting women and encouraging young women and girls to pursue STEM careers and quell tired gender stereotypes. Numerous men in the industry, such as Pfizer’s Rod MacKenzie, PhD, are also stepping up and elevating women in STEM by advocating for them and championing them in their careers.
MacKenzie is the chief development officer and executive vice president for Pfizer, leading the Global Product Development organization, which is responsible for the clinical development and advancement of Pfizer’s pipeline of innovative medicines in inflammation and immunology, internal medicine, hospital, oncology, and rare disease, as well as regulatory affairs in support of Pfizer’s R&D (research and development) pipeline and portfolio of marketed therapies. He’s also a member of Pfizer’s Executive Leadership Team and has been a long-time advocate for the advancement of women in the healthcare industry, earning the title of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association’s 2020/2021 Honorable Mentor.
For a BlogHer exclusive, we talked with MacKenzie about the lack of women in STEM careers, and how Pfizer is working to bridge the gender gap in the industry.
Why do you think there is a smaller number of women than men in STEM careers?
The difference in opportunity among genders – and perceptions that some jobs are more suited for a specific gender, especially in STEM – is one of many longstanding inequities that is long overdue to be consigned to history. We have made promising progress, but the pace of change has been far too slow.
I believe that men’s lack of engagement on the issue of gender inequality has been largely to blame. There has been a combination of denial and bias (mostly unconscious). Men’s careers often lack the headwinds experienced by women. It can be hard to acknowledge something you yourself haven’t experienced, so it’s easy to deny it exists. Most men want to do the right thing, so education and real listening can be the prelude to true acceptance.
Additionally, we must actively encourage women of all ages and backgrounds that STEM is for everyone – and one way we do that is by elevating women already in these fields. This way, we can truly show those who are considering careers in science or math that these fields are becoming more diverse and equitable, and most importantly, that there is a real opportunity for women to grow and advance.
Can you talk about some ways that allyship can help rid gender discrimination within STEM?
To be true allies, we must first identify and acknowledge – and then mitigate – unconscious bias, which unfortunately exists in all of us. I’m proud to say Pfizer is taking several actions to minimize unconscious bias – from leadership training to gender-blind resume reviews. In the division I oversee, Global Product Development (GPD), which is an organization that includes more than 7,000 individuals who focus on various aspects related to clinical development of Pfizer’s portfolio of medicines and vaccines, we require interview slates and interview panels to be gender balanced for every position within our GPD organization. We also expanded this to include ethnic diversity in the United States.
We also have a “Men As Allies” group at Pfizer to encourage and activate the role men play in women’s and gender-expansive individuals’ development. We promote the principles of allyship, such as listening, learning, engaging, and supporting, and share practical strategies that all genders can use to be an ally and make a meaningful difference in the workplace every day.
Particularly, how do you think men in STEM careers can better support women in STEM careers?
Men, particularly those of us in senior positions, must do more to elevate women, especially women of color, in the industry by being sponsors and advocating on their behalf. Sponsorship means making a personal commitment to the talented women that are all around us and taking an active role in their career development and promoting women to the positions they deserve.
Is there something that you think leaders in STEM can do to be better allies for women in STEM? Are there any practices or policies that you believe in that help promote women in STEM?
Leaders in the healthcare space need to encourage their employers to enact policies and trainings that not only minimize gender bias, but also help identify and unlearn unconscious biases that often go unnoticed. We need to encourage practices that allow us to listen and to educate ourselves to enable the steps we need to take to enact change on a greater level.
Industry groups that bring together and elevate women leaders, such as the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA), also play an important role in convening allies and driving conversation that can help make a difference in how we support and promote women across our organizations.
How do we get more women interested in STEM careers? How do we continue to change this narrative that STEM is for men?
The narrative often starts early, so if we want to see meaningful change, we need to encourage women of all ages and backgrounds that STEM is for everyone. This is in large part why it’s so important to elevate women in STEM – from executive leaders to practitioners in their respective fields – whenever we have the chance. By doing so, we can demonstrate that there is a path forward and a place for them in these disciplines. Hopefully, as women in STEM continue to be promoted and recognized for their accomplishments, we can point to increasing diversity and parity as tangible examples of the opportunities that exist and encourage the next generation of women to pursue careers in these critical fields.
How do companies increase opportunities for women in STEM everywhere?
I can’t speak to other companies, but I’m proud to speak to our own company’s efforts to ensure equity. One of our primary goals at Pfizer is to be as diverse as the patients and communities we serve, and to make diversity, equity, and inclusion a part of our DNA.
That’s why Pfizer has made a concerted effort to focus and expand our commitments to equity – as it is one of our core values as a company. We want to ensure every colleague at Pfizer is seen, heard, and cared for, and we are committed to ensuring this happens by bringing together people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences.
In 2019, we launched our 2025 Opportunity Parity Goals, which are focused on increasing the diversity in our leadership. We continue to be committed to achieving our Opportunity Parity goal for women to reach global parity of 47% at the VP+ level by 2025.
Additionally, I’m pleased to say that our senior leadership team has several women on our executive team, including our BioPharma group president, our chief corporate affairs officer, our chief human resources officer, and our chief digital and technology officer. In the division I lead, Global Product Development, more than half of our leadership team is female. We’re quite proud of our efforts to advance women of all backgrounds into senior positions.
I believe the responsibility to advance women falls on everyone, but especially men in leadership roles within their organizations. It is our responsibility to ensure we are creating a space that is equitable and that everyone has access to the same opportunities. As executive sponsor for Pfizer’s Global Women’s Council, I have pledged that by 2025, the top positions (vice president and above) in Global Product Development will reflect the gender mix across all levels of the company. It is my hope that my successors will continue to do the work to make this goal a reality. Similar practices and policies, and more importantly, leadership that is committed to the cause, can help make a difference and increase opportunities for women in STEM everywhere.
We know that many women played key roles in Pfizer’s COVID vaccination development, including Kathrin Jansen from Pfizer and Katalin Kariko and Ozlem Tureci of BioNTech. And many others! Can you share a bit about how diversity in clinical research contributes to successful scientific outcomes? Why is it important that we have more women and minorities in this field?
The lightning-speed development and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines will forever be one of the greatest scientific innovations in history and it could not have been possible without dedicated researchers such as Kathrin, Katalin, and Ozlem, as well as clinical trial participants globally. There were so many other remarkable women who were critical to the execution of this landmark trial, to name just a few from my own organization – Donna Boyce, global head of regulatory affairs; Dr. Marie-Pierre Hellio, the head of clinical trial operation and development; Judy Sewards, the head of clinical trial experience; and Sarah Tweedy, the head of clinical trial operations for vaccines – all of whom played an instrumental role in the successful roll-out of this trial and approval of this vaccine when the world needed it most.
At Pfizer, we are committed to decreasing health disparities in underrepresented populations through our clinical trials. In our landmark COVID-19 trial, we selected investigative sites in diverse communities in the U.S. and globally that were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 to help ensure that individuals in these communities had the opportunity to participate. In our Phase 3 study, approximately 42% of overall participants and 30% of U.S. participants came from diverse backgrounds. As part of our clinical trial planning, we emphasized to our investigative sites the importance of recruiting individuals who fully represent the racial and ethnic diversity of their communities, and we engaged patient advocacy partners and local community groups to raise awareness about the importance of participation and representation. In all our newly initiated trials, we remain committed to enrolling diverse participant populations that represent the communities in which they’re conducted and the diseases we aim to treat.
We saw your tweet about the R&D Rotational Program. Can you share why this is an important initiative for Pfizer? How do programs like this help underrepresented groups in STEM?
Diversity expands and enriches our innovation. One of Pfizer’s four values as a company is equity, and I view achieving gender diversity as simply living our values.
We launched the Pfizer R&D Rotational Program for promising STEM college graduates with a focus on underrepresented minorities to ensure that we’re shaping the future of science and healthcare for everyone – and it starts with recruiting talent from diverse backgrounds. The program, which runs for two years, is designed to immerse individuals early in their careers in pharmaceutical R&D through 6-month job rotations in diverse disciplines within Pfizer’s R&D organization. Our hope is that this experience not only gives these young colleagues a strong understanding of the R&D process, but an appreciation for how we’re working to make it more equitable for all patients. To learn about this program, eligible candidates can visit Pfizer’s Careers page.