Women in healthcare leadership: On the up

Brigitte Nolet

General Manager of Roche Pharmaceuticals for Belgium and Luxembourg

Women in healthcare leadership: On the up

28 February 2022 | 6min

Quick Takes

  • COVID has changed the qualities people want and need from leaders

  • Empathy, resilience, the ability to collaborate are top of the list – and often more associated with female leaders

  • Women in healthcare leadership must own their narratives and not stand in their own way of success

Women have been on the frontlines of delivering healthcare for centuries. But now a growing number are stepping into the role of healthcare architects as they draw on their own, often personal, experiences to redesign the aging systems that so desperately need to be modernized.

In this short series, we partnered with Kate Dion, healthcare industry observer and Value Communications Lead for 3D Communications, to explore the topic of women in healthcare leadership. We will speak to four women who are changing the face of healthcare in a number of different ways, from leadership to securing funding for AI start-ups to implementing value-based healthcare to the creation of smart services that address the real needs of real families.

In our first interview, Brigitte Nolet, General Manager of Roche Pharmaceuticals for Belgium and Luxembourg, tells us why COVID is, rather unexpectedly, creating more opportunities for female leaders.

Women in healthcare leadership on the up

The timing of my interview with Brigitte Nolet, General Manager of Roche Pharmaceuticals for Belgium and Luxembourg, feels very appropriate. We meet on the last day of, what feels like, the longest month of the year. February is a mere 24 hours away. I feel giddy. Despite the storm clouds outside, I am hopeful winter will soon be behind us. And as I join the call, headlines that suggest we’re nearing the end of the pandemic flash across my screen.

Things are looking up and Brigitte’s optimism reflects the mood of the day.

“This is an extremely exciting time to be in healthcare,” Brigitte enthuses straight out of the blocks. “The science, the healthcare solutions, the shift towards preventative healthcare. Let all of us look at the dynamic, scientific, and innovative space that we are in and explore how we can come together to find even better healthcare solutions for the future,” she says.

Brigitte’s words will no doubt offer hope to the millions of women who are emerging from the pandemic feeling professionally, mentally, and emotionally bruised.

Research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in August 2021 showed that additional childcare commitments generally fell to women as governments around the world scrambled to contain the spread of COVID-19 by locking down schools and nurseries.1

Globally, women perform three times more care and domestic work than men, according to the recently published analysis in the BMJ, and this trend was exacerbated by the pandemic, profoundly impacting women’s mental health.1-2

“Gender asymmetries during the pandemic have extended to childcare, with mothers doing a greater share of childcare than fathers in response to closure of schools and daycare facilities and the unavailability of home help,” authors Soraya Seedat and Marta Rondon wrote in the BMJ, adding that mothers were interrupted 57 percent more during their paid work hours than fathers.1,3

Out with the old – A new job description for women in healthcare leadership

But Brigitte believes the pandemic has re-written the job description for leaders, ushering in a new era of leadership and a raft of new opportunities for female leaders, especially for women in healthcare leadership positions.

“What people want from leaders has changed as a result of the pandemic. They are looking for leaders, who are empathetic and caring. They need leaders, who build resilience, who communicate authentically, transparently, and with compassion. These are the attributes that will get us through these incredibly tough times and ready us for the next set of challenges,” Brigitte says.

“We also need leaders, who understand how to bring people together and who can look for solutions with others,” she adds.

During her three-year tenure at the helm of Roche in Belgium, Brigitte and her team have forged several innovative new partnerships with stakeholders from across the healthcare ecosystem, and she is looking forward to continuing this when she takes over as the General Manager for Roche Canada later this year.

Having worked across three sectors within the healthcare system – not-for-profit, public, and private – Brigitte knows just how crucial it is that women have a seat at the table, and she sees that things are changing for women in healthcare leadership.

“There is a much broader and new need for different partners and perspectives within healthcare. Empathy, openness, and partnership are being heard and are being welcomed, and these are all qualities that women possess,” Brigitte says, adding that diversity of opinion is a key ingredient for any innovative organization.

Three key ingredients for change

For real changes to happen within an organization, Brigitte believes three things need to be in place.

Firstly, intent. An organization must want to change and must therefore set clear goals that will ensure it achieves this desired change.

“Intentions and goals are really important. It is only through measurement that we will make any progress. Then, after a while, it will become natural and we will see that the change we wanted to achieve has become an embedded part of the culture,” Brigitte says.

Next up, support. Companies need to have appropriate support systems for women, who want to take on senior roles.

“This means looking at the policies that we have, such as policies around parental leave, childcare support, the ability to ensure flexible working hours as well as a shift towards outcomes-based working. By this I mean focusing on what people deliver and the outcomes they achieve rather than the number of hours they spend at a laptop,” she says.

Finally, men who support women.

“It’s not enough to have women championing women. Men have to support women too. It’s going to take all of us,” she says. “I have an amazing support network that includes both men and women, and it’s thanks to my support network that I am where I am today,” Brigitte says.

Be brave, be bold, be confident 

But it’s also important that women, who are aspiring to take on leadership positions, own their narratives and don’t fall into the trap of talking themselves out of taking the next career step, Brigitte says.

“I had to be brave enough to say that I wanted to be a leader. I had to be clear with myself about what I wanted, and I had to be brave. It was on me to come forward. I was my impetus, but I was also the person standing in my own way. I didn’t have the traditional ‘commercial’  General Manager profile so I questioned whether I would be accepted. Once I was brave enough to state out loud what I wanted, together with my line manager, I was able to start planning the next steps,” she says.

For Brigitte having the confidence to act is more than half the battle, and it’s a quality she and her husband are instilling in their two daughters.

“My husband is one of the most important feminists I know. He is a strong, thoughtful, caring, and dynamic leader. Every day, he’s with our girls, nurturing their love of science, their love of math. He’s making sure they have confidence and their voices are heard, just as much as I am” Brigitte says. “More than anything, I want them to come through their teenage years with confidence”.

As we conclude our call, I am left with a renewed sense of optimism that comes from Brigitte’s bravery and the insights she has shared, but also from the story of her husband, who, together with Brigitte, is raising two ladies, who are already making the world better. Things really are looking up.

Brigitte Nolet is General Manager for Roche Belgium and Luxembourg. She has held a number of global and affiliate leadership roles within the pharmaceutical company since joining almost 14 years ago. These include Director of Government Affairs and Health Policy for Specialty Care at Roche Canada; Integrated Franchise Leader for the rare diseases franchise at Roche UK; and Head of the Global Health Policy team. In her various leadership roles, Brigitte has worked with patient groups; established a global policy function; supported the evolution of Roche’s work with Global Health Institutions like the World Bank and the World Health Organization; represented the company on numerous global and local trade association committees; led the early Roche participation on the industry NCD Access Initiative to bring oncology medicines to low and lower middle income countries; and supported multiple product launches.

References

  1. Seedat and Rondon. (2021). BMJ 374. Article available from  https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n1972 [Accessed February 2022]
  2. UN Women. (2020). Article available from https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/progress-of-the-worlds-women [Accessed February 2022]
  3. Andrew et al. (2020). Article available from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3654937 [Accessed February 2022]