Empowering AstraZeneca Women Employees to Lead Successfully in the Future

It’s evident that women make up a big part of the workforce in the pharmaceutical industry. Women not only play important roles across the different sectors but also show a great deal of dedication and hard work in their job functions. Although there are several opportunities available for women today, they tend to face a unique set of challenges in the workplace that may slow down or hinder their progress towards achieving the successful careers that they desire and aim for. 

Among the greatest challenges in many of the largest companies worldwide are the barriers to gender diversity. This could also, however, be seen as an opportunity for companies to reflect on their current position on diversity and inclusion, and to look at how they can have a positive impact in this space.

The global pandemic has pushed organisations and employees to consider new ways of working and has rearranged priorities, with some companies placing important initiatives, such as gender diversity, on the back-burner. However, we at AstraZeneca GCC, believe that gender diversity is critical now more than ever given its far-reaching impact on the economy, society, and patients. For that reason, focusing on our people is our single biggest priority. Only when we bring out the best in every individual in the company, leveraging on their strengths, can we boost the performance of the company as a whole. It’s simple really – unleash the potential of women in the company at an individual level, work on maximising their potential in collaboration with their colleagues, and ultimately improve overall performance. 

Giving gender diversity equal prominence as any other business priority, AstraZeneca is able to nurture an inclusive culture and diverse workplace, through our comprehensive development program GCC AZ WIL – WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP.

There is no doubt that this programme, GCC AZ WIL, is a game-changer for our female colleagues. We continue to build a diversified workforce with a better understanding of the diverse patients in the GCC, making them more appealing to those patients through a better mutual understanding. The diverse team also allows for a wider range of creativity and problem-solving that addresses today’s healthcare challenges, contributing positively to the community as a whole. 

As a proud founder of this initiative, what inspired me was my strong belief in women’s potential. In my own professional journey in AstraZeneca, I always had and still have a strong ambition towards growing towards top positions in my career journey. I value equality and personal growth, two factors that drive me to head with full power and strength towards continuous learning and development, working hard both individually and as part of a team to achieve my goals. I have always focused on honing my unique strengths, while listening to my inner voice that encourages me to reach my full potential. GCC AZ WIL has become part of my mission to unleash women’s potential to achieve their professional growth and ambitions.

With a clear vision to drive sustainable behavioural and cultural change, GCC AZ WIL was officially launched in March 2020 and is now a part of our business strategy with set targets for the next two years.

GCC AZ WIL primarily focuses on developing our female colleagues to grow them into future leaders. But, of course, such initiatives cannot be successful without first understanding gaps. The first step we took was to identify the challenges and needs of the women participants through a survey shared with women at different career levels across the GCC organisation. 

The survey helped us pinpoint the three top perceived challenges that hindered women at AstraZeneca GCC in their career growth: self-doubt and self-awareness, lack of close people support, and worries about potential trade-offs to grow.

The programme was then kicked off with actionable custom-designed training and workshops to address those challenges:

Personal Branding and Career trajectory to help women build self-awareness through a three-hour workshop followed by group coaching. The use of practical tools that identify and reinforce a woman’s personal strength, understanding personal and company values, and building a powerful brand experience to support all AZ women to effectively brand and differentiate themselves all formed a part of this initiative.

Mentorship and Sponsorship programme to address the second concern that women shared in the survey of not having the support needed in their development and career journeys. This programme facilitated leadership skill development and allowed women to work on professional relationships and confidently share their experiences, articulate their career ambitions and build a solid strategic network with mentors and coaches through monthly sessions to support them to stay accountable for goal achievement and discover their inner potential.

Another very important change that we are working on is a shift in flexibility in everyday work to address the third concern that women shared in the survey. In 2020, the pandemic made it evident how successful and efficient working from home can be. A lot of women working from home, especially mothers, found the flexibility of working from home very beneficial for them, in achieving their work-life balance. This shed light on the idea of women being given more flexibility in choosing where to work from, with the option of working from home, particularly as performance and achievement of results is as good or even better than before. 

We are expecting to see many direct benefits as a result of those workshops and training programmes including seeing women more easily acquiring new skills, continuously progressing in their career, and becoming successful leaders that can have a great positive impact on the organisational culture and the growth of the company as a whole. 

Having an ambitious and wide vision for this programme is key to keep the momentum of further realising the full power of our women colleagues. A few of the main goals we aspire to empower women at AstraZeneca GCC to achieve are: self-development, more women in senior positions, encourage women to speak their minds and help women leverage their strengths.

The importance of gender diversity stretches beyond women; men also play a major role as ‘co-drivers’ and allies for AstraZeneca women. Male managers were engaged in the GCC AZ WIL initiative in an all-male managers workshop, with the aim to promote awareness of the importance of self-care, wellbeing, work-life balance for themselves and their teams, and an empathetic communication workshop that focused on minimising the natural unconscious bias limiting men from showing enough support for their female colleagues.

71% of all GCC employees attended the launch event of GCC AZ WIL programme, showing a keen interest to participate and support the initiative, and 84% of women in non-managerial positions attended the personal branding workshop with positive feedback on feeling inspired, more confident, with a bolder vision for their futures. Furthermore, 76% of managers shared their feedback on how the male managers workshop supported them to move away from control leadership style to coaching style in driving female employee performance.

To celebrate the GCC AZ WIL programme’s achievements and the growth witnessed at the end of each year, we will proudly honour our women participants and their great effort towards development. We hope to do this via a ‘Women Forum’ to recognise the female rising stars and the fellow males that stood side-by-side during the journey. Together we will all stand raising the AstraZeneca community flag, proudly sharing the sense of belonging to our diverse and inclusive workplace.

Change is happening slowly but surely, and this is the worldwide trend in all organisations. We are aware it can be challenging, but recognising the opportunity it presents will help this shift happen quicker.

There is no dearth of successful women in GCC countries already in senior management and executive roles, and what we’re trying to do through various WIL activities is inspire women by these examples, and encourage them to start listening to their inner voice, trust in their potential and be confident and courageous to achieve all that they desire. 

According to a McKinsey report ‘Women at Work’: ‘The share of women in professional and technical jobs is set to more than double by 2030 through digitization, online platforms, and entrepreneurship. Capturing this opportunity would put women in the Middle East at parity with global peers. Women in the Middle East can go further and aim to achieve parity with the region’s men in professional and technical jobs.’1

Therefore, no matter where you are in your career: your level, your experience, your role, women shouldn’t wait for the change to happen. Take the first step to make the change yourself and be the example that will inspire others around you. This is how we can create a ripple effect that will help us be the change that we want to see.

1 McKinsey & Company ‘Women At Work – Job opportunities in the Middle East set to double with the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Issued in 2020.

About the author

Rasha AbouNayef

Rasha AbouNayef

AstraZeneca, Gender Diversity Project Lead MEA

Rasha is the Gender Diversity Project lead MEA AstraZeneca and has been in this role since January 2021. She is responsible for AstraZeneca Woman In Leadership programme (AZ WIL) across the MEA countries. AZ WIL is a development programme that targets female employees at AstraZeneca regardless of level to empower them personally and professionally to become great leaders creating a high impact in their organisation and aiming to make AstraZeneca the best place to work.

Leveraging on her unique strengths and listening to the voice inside her that pushed her to unleash her inner potential motivated Rasha to get to where she is today. The AZ WIL programme has become a part of her mission and has her full dedication to support women to reach their full potential and help them achieve professional growth.

Rasha more than 13 years’ experience in the pharmaceutical industry, having started her career in 2006 with Novartis consumer UAE in sales before joining AstraZeneca in December 2008. Her experience in AstraZeneca includes roles in different areas of business like sales, marketing, and medical across several therapeutic areas.

Rasha holds an MBA from the University of Manchester, and BSc in Pharmacy from BAU University Lebanon.

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