Jennifer Ralph James, Grit Mentor and Pharmaceutical Medical Affairs Leader
Please tell us a little about yourself and your experience as a female leader in life science.
I’m a health sector leader, passionate about contributing to meaningful initiatives with positive impact on the patient journey. Under that broad theme, I’ve worked in both public and private sectors in Ireland and Australia – one of the many benefits of a life science grounding is the varied and international opportunities it can bring!
While I enjoyed my rheumatology research at the bench in University College Dublin and Monash University Melbourne, like other scientists I was interested in the strategic side of life sciences. To that end, I’ve worked in medical writing, research investment, research ethics regulation and pharmaceutical medical affairs.
One of the achievements that I’m most proud of is leading the operationalisation of Ireland’s first National Research Ethics Committee for COVID-19, an essential component of the Irish Government’s national research response to the pandemic.
I’ve just started an exciting new role in Global Medical Affairs at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, managing important aspects of the operations that support their research efforts in rare diseases across the world.
My hallmark approach throughout my career has been a relationship builder, lifelong learner and a harnesser of individuality within teams. I’ve an enduring interest in what makes people tick, performance psychology and advocating for diversity in leadership.
As a female scientist (and an introvert), I haven’t always seen my leadership style modelled at decision-maker level, so I am enthusiastic to foster conversation on the importance of gender diversity and similarly important, diversity in working and thinking styles. (I wrote a short reflection on this several years back https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/i-hear-quiet-loud-clear-jennifer-ralph-james)
In terms of leadership, I’ve held number of management or directing roles in the formal sense but I’m a big believer of ‘within role’ leadership – some of the best leadership examples I’ve seen have not always been by those who hold the most senior titles.
Leadership is about influencing others and driving change, no matter how small, for the greater good of an organisation. My leadership journey is still evolving but one inflection point I can identify is that my impact became more ‘real’ when I did! When I trusted my decisions, spoke up and took action in line with my values, my own differentiated strengths came to the fore. As the leadership guru Brene Brown says, choose ‘courage over comfort’!
What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you and why is it so important?
It’s difficult to put words on the importance of something so essential! Embedding diversity, equity and inclusion into our workplaces means that our organisational decisions and outputs are informed by the richness of perspectives that exist in society.
Importantly, it means that everyone can bring their authentic selves to work, where their views are proactively sought, not as a ‘tick box’ exercise but as an essential enabler of healthy and productive workplaces. In this way, a sense of true belonging is created with all the associated benefits this brings.
There is now an increasing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, and many organisations pride themselves on being champions in this space; however the true test will be those who manage to translate the politically correct words from the glossy brochure into the office corridors.
Understanding the world in different ways through diversity, equity and inclusion, is one of the biggest opportunities that contemporary workplaces have.
How can we calculate the positive impacts of having more women in an organisation?
Calculating the impacts of gender diversity may appear a little contrived (in one way it’s a shame it has to be done!) but I think it is necessary for as long as there’s a disparate representation of women in positions of leadership and influence.
Although progress can feel slow, I’m reminded of the phrase ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ (Marian Wright Edelman), meaning the more visibility that female leaders have, the more we can move the dial in the right direction by role modelling for emerging female leaders.
And the attractive aspect for employers is that talent begets talent! which is a major positive impact of having more women in an organisation.
I have heard arguments that positive interventions towards women with policy and other initiatives don’t do ‘us’ any favours or are unfair, but on balance I think well thought-out targeted initiatives can go some way to tip the scales towards fairness in access to opportunities (for example, there have been research funding policy interventions in Ireland and internationally for female scientists).
The existing gendered construct of work-home responsibility and access to opportunities has taken at least a hundred years to evolve over modern history – we can’t wait that long again for any systemic inequities to organically fall out of the system! I’m mindful of any undertone that suggests this is a male versus female issue – it isn’t.
There isn’t a finite amount of success, opportunity and work-life balance to be divided up. When both men and women can be as ambitious for our home lives outside work as we are for our careers, everyone benefits. I think this will be one of the key positive impacts for society.
Why did you decide to become a mentor for the GRIT program? And what did you gain from the experience?
I was delighted to get the call from Diane to be invited to be a mentor for the GRIT program. Firstly, her enthusiasm is contagious! which makes it a pleasure to collaborate with her and her team. The GRIT team have created a movement that drives an ambitious goal to promote gender equity in life sciences innovation, underpinned by the real-world necessities of skills-building and investment – as a female scientist there is something special about contributing to this.
Secondly (and selfishly!), I learn a lot from my engagement with the GRIT mentees; they are working at the forefront of their fields and attempting to solve timely challenges in life sciences and healthcare.
Inherently I have a coaching personality and love to connect with people individually, so the GRIT program gives me an ideal forum to channel this personal strength.
Finally, I myself have benefited from mentorship, coaching and sponsorship over my career. I have first-hand experience of the insights that conversations under these guises can bring about, in addition to the networks and practical information that can be gleaned.
In the spirit of paying it forward, as a GRIT mentor I am privileged to be part of the journeys of other female leaders.
Any final thoughts?
‘Stay in your own lane’ ladies, no matter how clear (or not!) the path ahead is!