Barbara Ryan is the founder of Fabulous Pharma Females, a non-profit dedicated to the advancement of women in the biopharmaceutical industry. As a 35-plus-year veteran of the bio pharmaceutical industry, healthcare company Board Member and finance expert and C-suite advisor, she recognizes the power of investing in trusted relationships when it comes to achieving common goals. In biotech, where fewer than ten percent of top leadership positions are held by women, Barbara works from a place of mutual support, firmly believing that women in power are obligated to use their position to help other qualified women succeed as well.

It was a pleasure to sit down with her to talk about building strong relationships and a sense of community among women in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries and how it fosters long-term success.

Tell me more about yourself and what led you to start Fabulous Pharma Females.

I started my career on Wall Street at Bear Stearns in 1982 after interning for them throughout my college years. There were very, very few women in that environment other than women who were in admin roles, and I didn’t really feel that I had any role models. I took on an independent mindset and felt I had to work for myself, by myself.

Though I was largely excluded from the male community in the office, once I earned their attention and respect through hard work and results, being a woman actually made me more memorable. There were plenty of “Toms” and “Bills,” but not many “Barbaras!” I didn’t want to dismiss my femininity, which I had seen other women do in order to try to fit in. Ultimately, I felt I was at an advantage, but it was hard to finally get to that place. 

Later in my career, I was craving a sense of community with the many fabulous women who worked within the pharma and biotech industry, so I started hosting dinners in private rooms in Manhattan. By creating a space to share our common challenges and aspirations, it affirmed for a lot of us that we could support each other without a scarcity mindset. We could show up and ask for what we needed and support each other freely. By word of mouth, the list of women who had a desire to get involved in our community grew exponentially. From my experience in writing reports that needed enticing titles in order to be read, I knew I needed an engaging name for these events. After laboring over the idea, I came up with Fabulous Pharma Females. 

What are some of the challenges facing women in biopharma leadership?

In some ways, it’s a vicious cycle. If you go into a room and nine out of ten executives are men, chances are they will continue to promote men. The cycle then goes on, still leaving women largely excluded from the process. But I believe we’re at a powerful tipping point, this is our moment to seize the opportunity. While the numbers still aren’t where we’d like them to be, there are more women than ever in the C-suite and there are even more capable and qualified women who deserve to be brought up the ladder as well. We each have an obligation to help make that happen! 

What advice do you have for organizations to break down those obstacles?

Mentorship creates the opportunity for younger women to look to older women as examples of success. Their aspirations become more achievable as well as believable when their goals are affirmed before their very eyes. More women will be empowered by virtue of the examples they witness in their work lives. This is very different than when I started my career.

We just saw Citibank announce their first-ever female CEO, which is historic for an investment bank. The world is changing, whether it be through diversity-driven data, a large pool of talented women, or legislation, and it’s bringing with it a lot of enlightenment. Those companies that are champions of diversity deserve to be rewarded and will, in turn, influence their competition.

Are these career obstacles any different from what men may experience? How can men be better allies for women leaders?

Given that they currently hold most of the positions on boards and in the C-suite, the support of men is crucial in the advancement of women. There are many men who are already supportive of women and like to have a diverse team of women who are smart, like-minded, and ambitious. But ultimately, it’s a two-way street: women have to learn how to ask for what they want. We began inviting men to Fabulous Pharma Females dinners to foster a culture in which men are well-acquainted with qualified and deserving women who can then be promoted in the workplace across our industry. It became an incredibly sought-after invitation—men wanted to be involved! Men in our industry absolutely do have a desire to sponsor women in their careers and put them in positions to succeed. By giving women positions with more visibility, they are then able to gain momentum in their own careers, and in turn, create opportunities for even more women. 

What advice would you give to women who want to advance to the chief executive roles in biopharma?

Women should seek out leaders, whether they be women or men, that they believe have been successful and have a similar path to what they’d like to pursue and ask them for coffee. Work to develop a relationship with those people. One of my favorite sayings is, “Ninety-nine percent of life is just showing up.” Showing up and doing the work are foundational necessities, of course. Beyond that, though, people have to know you and trust and respect you in order to elevate you. Developing relationships is critical to building these and your success because it is your network that will make the warm introductions to those who can advance your career. Of course, you have to be ready and qualified for these opportunities when they arise. But when you have mutual respect with someone and they are willing to make an introduction for you, then you gain instant credibility with that person and there is a point of access for growth opportunities. 

How do the women in the FPF community help each other to support more diversity in pharma?

I love hearing stories of women who come to Fabulous Pharma Females and meet other women with whom they later collaborate successfully within different facets of the industry. Especially when women in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries are faced with opportunities or challenges, they then have an entire network to call on in order to help. It is so important for us to have our “squad”. I saw a pattern of community building among my male colleagues throughout my career and witnessed how they would support each other throughout their careers. When one of those men received an opportunity at a new company, they would bring along the supportive and successful men with them from the old company in order to continue that progress. We can learn a lot from the men. I wanted to be a catalyst for that kind of community building among women in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Through community building, mentorship, and networking, we create more points of access for diversity in pharma. Supporting one another is rewarding and it’s good business!

Where can people go to learn more about you and FPF? You can follow or connect with me on LinkedIn.