April 10, 2019

Event Report: Empowering Women's Leadership in Global Health R&D

GHIT’s Empowering Women's Leadership in Global Health R&D symposium, held on March 8, 2019 (International Women’s Day), convened Japanese and international participants – women and men alike, from across sectors – to unpack the legacy and future of women’s leadership in global health R&D, and discuss strategies to address the challenge of empowering women. In his opening remarks, BT Slingsby, former CEO of GHIT Fund, characterized the event as fundamentally about diversity and the mentorship and training that make it possible for anyone—from any background or sector or of any gender—to contribute to global health.


Keynote speaker Heidi Larson, Professor of Anthropology, Risk and Decision Science and founding Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, shared findings from the November 2018 Women's Leaders in Global Health Conference, which was organized by the London School and for which she served as Chair. For her, those discussions underscored the need for more diversity—in terms of sectors, as well as gender and international representation—along with the vital role of mentorship. Dr. Larson shared a testimonial from a woman leader from Nigeria who said that the goal for those in leadership must be that their ceiling becomes a floor for the ones who follow and that “we do that by mentoring, by training, by pouring ourselves into others and into the next generation.”  


Nobuko Kato, Vice President and Global Head of External Communications at Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited, moderated the first panel discussion on women’s leadership in global health R&D in which panelists drew on their own experiences. Panelist Joelle Tanguy, Director of External Affairs at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, shared that the dearth of women in science and industry leadership create a challenge for PDPs and that proactive searches are needed to ensure equal numbers of initial candidates. Women are less likely than men to apply to stretch roles, Tanguy added, “this is part of the reason why data shows men are recruited for their potential and women only for their experience.” She emphasized that change begins at the top, which means that men in leadership must make commitments to empower women. 


Hiroyoshi Endo, Dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at International University, said that because Japan has a dearth of female leaders, the society as  a whole – and certainly male leaders – does not have enough experiencing mentoring women for leadership roles. He added that, for now, male Japanese leaders they would need to look internationally for examples of how to mentor, nurture, and support women, as well as encourage female students to be proactive on their own behalf.


Melanie Saville, Director of Vaccine Development with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, pointed out that “leadership isn't something that just happens; you have to learn it as much as you've learned science” and urged women to start learning leadership skills now for opportunities in the future. She emphasized the importance of being comfortable with making decisions and having women on the board and in the leadership teams where the decisions are made.


On the topic of building leadership skills, Atsuko Hirooka, Executive Officer for Environmental Health and Animal Nutrition at Sumitomo Chemical Co., Ltd., said that in global health R&D, as in any field, leadership is about pushing everyone positively to achieve a larger goal, having a big-picture perspective, and continuously growing your network and experience – it is not just about honing scientific skills. In addition to growing these skills, she said, “think about what kind of leader you want to be.”


Bumpei Tamamura, GHIT’s Senior Director of Brand Communications, moderated the second panel, which explored career and mentorship stories. One commonality among the three panelists was that none had initially started out in global health.


Hiroko Nishimoto, Manager at the Japan Health and Global Policy Institute, who lived in the U.S until graduating elementary school, chose to work in a Japanese pharmaceutical company because she had always had an interest in Japanese business, technology, and manufacturing and wanted an international role at a Japanese company. A turning point came when she failed an internal test and her mentor challenged her to look at weaknesses that were holding her back which eventually lead to pursuing an MBA. This gave her the core skills in business that allowed her to get involved with a global health strategy project within her organization. Her message of encouragement for others was that “even if you're working for the private sector, there are so many opportunities out there to be engaged in global health.”


At a very young age Mihoko Kashiwakura, Head of the Japan office for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, had an experience meeting children begging on the streets of Mexico. This experience left a lasting impression aspiring her to develop a career that supports developing a global system that provides food, health, and education for every child across the planet. She always believed that “finance and investment banking’s primary role is to nurture the seeds of how future societies and generations are shaped” and started working in investment banking after graduating college. Working in responsible/ ESG investments, she realized how ESG investors were still a minority and joined the World Economic Forum hoping to shape global agenda such as income inequality and SDGs at a multi-stakeholder community. From the forum, she transitioned to the Gates Foundation where she now works directly in the field she dreamt after 30 years.


It was out of a desire for financial stability that Nirianne Marie Q. Palacpac, Specially Appointed Professor in the Research Institute for Microbial Diseases at Osaka University, started her career in Micro/Biotechnology. As an exchange scientist under the Faculty of Engineering in a Japanese University, at that time a very male-dominated field she stood apart, both as a woman and a foreigner. Later, when working under Prof. Horii, a Professor at Osaka University, she suggested that she can be his English secretary during the preparation for a clinical trial in Uganda, a project where Japanese partners have no experience conducting a clinical trial outside Japan; and Ugandan partners who have no experience in conducting clinical trials. “He took a risk on me,” she recalled, remembering how he then treated her as a partner in the process from working with the GMP manufacturer/sponsor to regulatory approval in Uganda. “He pushed me to excel and grow in many ways.” She later recalled another mentor who taught her the importance of learning through observation and being sensitive to the many dynamics at play in diverse work cultures, particularly in clinical trials.


Hiroko Nishimoto recommended that before approaching a mentor, a mentee should prepare by spending time in self-reflection: “What do you want to do in your career or life? What are your goals? Your strengths and weaknesses?” She emphasized her approach to have as mentor a senior executive who had the power to support her and connect her with others to open up opportunities.


Mihoko Kashiwakura said that she had intentionally created a system of mentors outside of the Tokyo office, noting that “the relationships don’t have to be formal; rather, they can be very casual and involve reaching out just once or twice a year to contacts in senior leadership roles,” as she continues to do.


In closing remarks for the event, Chieko Ikeda, Senior Assistant Minister for Global Health within Japan’s Ministry Secretariat Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, stated her belief that “women's increased participation in this field will help foster new ideas, innovations, and partnerships” and that "diversity “will be a critical component of the well-being for future generations around the world.”


Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/141762393@N03/albums/72157690833222963