Knowledge Center: Article

Diversity and Inclusion

Ideas for aspiring female leaders in China’s life sciences sector

6/22/2018 Jimson Cheng and Jonathan Zhu

APAC Women's Event

In March 2018, Heidrick & Struggles’ Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice in the Asia Pacific region organized a leadership forum, Journey to the Top, in Shanghai, China, which brought together female leaders and HR heads from major international life sciences companies to explore the path to leadership for aspiring women.

In front of an audience of present and future peers, including 25 MBA students from China Europe International Business School, attendees heard how China is rapidly becoming one of the best life science markets in the region for the advancement of women, boasting greater gender diversity than found in Japan, South Korea, and other countries.

This positive development is a double-edged sword, however. In the United States and other markets, supply of talent tends to outstrip demand—indeed, there is increasingly fierce competition for the very best talent—whereas in China it can be difficult to find people to fill available roles.

In the first panel discussion of the day, leading women in the Chinese entities of healthcare giants including Alcon, Baxter International, Eli Lilly, and Novartis discussed how their companies are helping to encourage diversity. In the second panel session, HR leaders from these firms were joined by Johnson & Johnson’s China HR head, the head of HR for Bayer Greater China, and ‎vice president and area HR director of GSK Hong Kong and China to discuss how their departments can also inject diversity into the sector—an issue that is now more business critical than ever.

Following are some key takeaways from the event.

Expand your horizons

China is an exciting place to be. Its people are hungry for success and want to learn, and leading national companies look set to eventually become international leaders as China’s life sciences sector consolidates.

This means that aspiring and already successful leaders need a local mind-set to execute on the ground but should also have a global perspective. Developing the latter can be a challenge in a country where people are often reluctant to go overseas for long periods. As one panelist suggested, “If we truly want to have a global mind-set and the ability to work across different cultures—one of the keys to becoming a broadly influential leader—then there really is no alternative to a sojourn overseas.”

Another panelist noted that working for a large multinational company can offer experience in multiple different departments as well as markets. “Chinese companies going out into the world are typically siloed legal entities, but at major international organizations, you don’t need to leave to learn about different fields in life sciences—firms should emphasize rotation for leaders to get a full picture of their organization,” she explained.

Buy-in at home and from the office

Chinese women face many expectations, both at home and at work. Companies can help them optimize their performance by creating the right environment—for example, through allowing flexible working hours and technology-enabled remote working. For their part, Chinese women aspiring to lead in the life sciences sector should also be open with their families about their ambitions and never miss an important family moment.

One leading life sciences company present at the event has set up a confidential hotline to help women with balancing home and work priorities as part of its efforts to support diversity and its staff more widely to enjoy all life and work have to offer.

Speak up and speak out

Another panelist, who has held multiple leadership roles during a 20-year career at a major global healthcare company, suggested that aspiring female leaders need to take a more confident approach. “A leader must have confidence to set an objective, decide on the strategy to achieve it, and be able to communicate this clearly and simply,” she said.

This can be a challenge for Chinese women in a Western company context, where the typical assumption is that if you don’t talk, you don’t know, particularly given that Chinese organizations themselves tend not to encourage open sharing of feedback. “Be confident. When you have a thought, express it. Become embedded in the ‘brain’ of the organization,” another panelist advised.

HR coming into its own

Although HR is typically not seen as being at the business end of the life sciences sector, it is rapidly becoming more than just an administrative department, instead making critical decisions that can be the difference between success and failure in the industry and shaping the culture of the organization.

According to one panelist, when she first made the move from marketing to HR five years ago, the change in role was considered a downgrade. However, today firms increasingly realize the benefits of experience working across different departments to get new perspectives on business.

Indeed, many HR networks are now tasked with developing functions that not only bring in the right people but also encourage talent to develop in meaningful ways, which drives business innovation and growth. “There is a huge need for talent and high turnover in the industry,” a panelist explained. “Companies can make a unique emotional connection with their talent to ensure that when people leave, their minds remain open to coming back.”

About the authors

Jimson Cheng ( is the regional managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice for Asia Pacific and the Middle East; he is based in the Singapore office.

Jonathan Zhu ( is a partner in the Shanghai office and a member of the Healthcare & Life Sciences and Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs practices.

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Jimson Cheng Partner +65 63325001
Jonathan Zhu Regional Managing Partner +852 2103 9300