'The opportunities are there to take': Executive Director Catherine Hill discusses her journey as a woman in a leadership role at Oxford PharmaGenesis

22 September 2022

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Thanks to colleagues who took part in the 2022 Great Place to Work survey, Oxford PharmaGenesis is ranked the UK’s no. 6 Best Workplace for Women (large company category).

Executive Director Catherine Hill sits on the Oxford PharmaGenesis Board and co-leads the Regional Leadership Team for Europe. Here, she tells us about her own journey as a woman in a leadership role and reflects on what more is needed to attract women to the sector.

My background isn’t related to what I do now.

Before I got into medical communications, I did a PhD and a postdoc in archaeogenetics. It involved using modern DNA to track population migrations in prehistory, which is super interesting but really niche and difficult to get funding for!

My postdoc funding was running out and I was looking for something else to do. The only other postdocs I could find in the field were places I didn’t want to move to, so I started looking for new and different things.

I found the job for Oxford PharmaGenesis advertised in the back of New Scientist.

This was quite a while ago – 2007 – and print magazines were still a thing! The advert was for a Medical Writer. I’d always enjoyed the writing aspect of my PhD and postdoc more than the actual lab work. I thought it sounded interesting and so I applied. Then at the interview the people seemed really lovely and friendly, and I realized I really wanted the job!

My proudest professional achievement so far is seeing how the London office has grown.

After 4 years in our Oxford Barns office, I left Oxford PharmaGenesis to relocate to London and worked for another agency for a while. I came back to Oxford PharmaGenesis about 10½ years ago to set up our London office.

We wanted to set something up because, as lovely as the Barns are, not everyone wants to work in rural Oxfordshire! So, we knew we were missing out on some good candidates and that a London presence would make it easier for clients to pop in and visit us here.

At first, it was just me and a trainee writer in a tiny office in Paddington. A couple of other people relocated from the Barns to London shortly after, and since then the office has grown to be almost 100 people! It’s a real testament to the people that we have in the teams and the company that this has been possible.

There are some challenges around expectations of women in leadership roles.

I think my leadership style is collaborative– or ‘affiliative’, I suppose is a good word – rather than the more ‘visionary’ kind of leadership. I think it’s been influenced by how I’ve had to work with other people to grow the London office from the ground up. It’s a leadership style that’s developed naturally.

Sometimes people expect a more ‘obvious’ leadership style than I think some women tend to have. The expectation on women can be to sit back a little bit and not put yourself forward for opportunities too much, and people don’t necessarily recognize how much you’re doing. So I think there’s a need to break out of those cultural and gender patterns.

Our culture helps attract talented women to Oxford PharmaGenesis.

I don’t think I would have thought when I first started at the company that this is where I would end up. But if you want opportunities at Oxford PharmaGenesis, they’re there to take.

We now have two women on the Board – myself and Sharon Frost, our Global HR Director – and the majority of people on our Regional Leadership Team and Local Management Teams are women. I think people will hopefully see from that that we’re a company in which women can grow.

We have a really friendly, approachable culture, too. We’ve tried to keep the ‘small company’ feel as much as possible. When I started, there were only about 40 people, and we’re now over 500 people. And it doesn’t necessarily feel as different as you would expect, which is fantastic. I think this aspect of our culture is something we’re really keen to keep.

Our focus on well-being has made a difference to our Great Place to Work ranking.

We’ve been working on well-being for a couple of years, and Covid made us realize how important it is. You can see over the years that our well-being scores in Great Place to Work have improved in areas like work–life balance. Our industry is so client-focused, and it’s always going to be quite a high-pressure work environment, so I think for us to score as highly as we do in well-being is fantastic.

And we’ll continue to improve these things. It’s great to be recognized by Great Place to Work as a top 6 Best Workplace for Women in the UK, and it would be nice to see us in the top 5 next year!

We need to do more to educate women that the medical communications sector exists.

There are lots of senior female leaders in the sector, and we need to do more to educate on that – that it is an industry in which you can progress. I think we need to have more women at industry events, making sure we have more exposure.

There are great opportunities to meet other really interesting people both inside and outside medical communications – thinking for instance about the clinicians we work with. And there’s scope for excellent career advancement within the industry, whatever role you’re in.

What would I say to women interested in leadership roles? Go for it!

Don’t be scared to put yourself forward for opportunities. And there might be some opportunities that are less obvious than others. If you’re interested in a certain area or a certain field, make sure people know that, and make sure you try to drive it forward within your company.

My next step is to help Oxford PharmaGenesis expand for the future.

We’re continuing to expand the company in Europe, and I’m working on leading and building our Regional Leadership Team for Europe. We’ve also just reached 500 people globally, and we’re not planning to stay at that number.

I’m excited to see what that all means in reality, and where it takes us!