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Big Pharma’s Latest Breakthrough: Choosing Its First Female CEO

Sept. 20, 2016
Emma Walmsley will lead GlaxoSmithKline starting in March, breaking the gender barrier at the world’s top 25 drugmakers. 

GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s new chief executive looks a lot like other bosses at large pharmaceutical companies: a graduate of Oxford, white, with worldwide experience managing thousands of employees. There is, though, one big difference: She’s not a man.

Emma Walmsley will lead the British drugmaker starting in March, breaking the gender barrier at the world’s top 25 drugmakers and highlighting the dearth of female leadership among Europe’s biggest companies.

“I’ve never primarily defined myself by my gender,” Walmsley said in a video posted on Glaxo’s website on Sept. 20 after announcing her appointment. “I’ve been lucky enough to always work for companies or in countries where being female hasn’t limited or restricted me.”

Walmsley, a 47-year-old mother of four, made what she described as “a bungee jump” to Glaxo from cosmetics giant L’Oreal SA in 2010 following a meeting with CEO Andrew Witty, who will retire in March.

After Witty asked her to join Glaxo, “I spent a week persuading myself I would be insane to do it,” she wrote in a posting on Lean In, a website aimed at supporting women in business founded by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. But Walmsley quickly embraced the challenge: “People regret far more what they don’t do rather than what they do.”

Doubling Margins

She started overseeing Europe for the company’s consumer healthcare unit, maker of Sensodyne toothpaste and Horlicks drinks. In 2011, she was promoted to head the consumer business worldwide. Under Walmsley’s leadership, core operating margins at the consumer unit doubled to 14% in the quarter ended June from a year earlier, bringing Glaxo closer to its aim of 20% operating profit margin for the division by 2020.

The U.K., whose prime minister and monarch are both women, boasts a dozen female CEOs of publicly traded companies valued at at least $1 billion, more than any other country in western Europe, yet still only 4% of the total. Six of those 12 belong to Britain’s main stocks gauge: EasyJet Plc, Kingfisher Plc, Whitbread Plc, Royal Mail Plc, Imperial Brands Plc and Severn Trent Plc.

As recently as 2012, the FTSE 100 Index had only two companies led by women. Glaxo Chairman Philip Hampton is spearheading a government-backed review on how to increase the number of female executives at the U.K.’s biggest 350 companies. The review will report its findings at the end of the year.

In Denmark, 5.4% of companies with valuations above $1 billion are led by women, and in Sweden it’s 4%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. France, Italy, and even Germany -- where Angela Merkel has been chancellor for more than a decade -- have no companies with a market value topping $1 billion that are led by women.

Big pharma hasn’t been a trailblazer in promoting women. It’s behind the technology and consumer sectors though it’s better than -- or at least no worse than -- the finance and energy industries. Women captured less than 3% of new CEO positions globally last year, the worst showing since 2011, according to a PwC study of 2,500 global public companies.

“We’re not doing a good enough job in developing female talent at the highest level,” outgoing Novo Nordisk A/S CEO Lars Rebien Soerensen, who has no women reporting to him, said in an interview in May. “We’re not worse or better than any other. It’s a cultural-social issue that we have in Europe.”

Walmsley is one of two women on Glaxo’s top executive team, according to the company’s website. She will join the board on Jan. 1 and take the helm of the London-based company on March 31, Glaxo said on Sept. 20. At L’Oreal, she held positions in the U.S. and Europe, and had been in China for three years when she had her 2010 meeting with Witty.

“I love to see courageous leaders with strong points of view,” Walmsley said in the video. “We all have a responsibility to be role models, to inspire our daughters to stay ambitious.”

By Ketaki Gokhale and Kristen Hallam

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