Finance The first female big pharma CEO had the perfect response to a question about women in leadership

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GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley made history in 2017, when she became the first woman to head up a major pharmaceutical company.

Emma Walmsley of GlaxoSmithKline poses in this undated photograph released in London. play

Emma Walmsley of GlaxoSmithKline poses in this undated photograph released in London.

(Reuters via handout)
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  • GSK CEO Emma Walmsley is the first woman to lead a big pharmaceutical company.
  • At an investor conference on Tuesday, she was asked about female leadership in the industry. She responded with how she thinks of her job — that is, about the company and the medicine it makes first, rather than about her gender.
  • Walmsley also said there needs to be a push for more diversity in pharma overall, whether that be through better representation of race, the LGBT community, or just more personalities.


GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley made history in 2017, when she became the first woman to head up a major pharmaceutical company.

In her first company presentation at an industry conference as the CEO of GSK, Walmsley was asked about female leadership in the pharmaceutical industry. She responded not by talking about gender, but by running through how she thinks about her responsibilities as CEO.

"These jobs — and I’m new at it — come with an enormous privilege and a tremendous responsibility first and foremost to do the job that we do," she said, elaborating that it's all about drug discovery, development, and distribution of the medications. There's also the responsibility she has to shareholders of the company.

“I try to define myself personally by my job to deliver on those two things first first rather than by my gender. But I recognize the responsibility I have as a leader, in brackets a little bit, as a role model, because you’re just more visible whether you like it or not, you just are more visible for that. And I have — I want to — represent diversity in that sense.”

But, she said, gender isn’t the only thing that needs to be better represented, pointing to the LGBT community, racial diversity, and personality.

"You cannot be a modern employer in an industry that should be future facing and modernizing arguably much more aggressively than it is without being very demanding on this topic," Walmsley said. "I really do think the part of our trust agenda is being a modern employer where whoever you are … you can bring the very best version of yourself to work without fear of any kind of inappropriate behavior."

When it comes to leadership rolse especially, that's important to promote.

"We should be much more proactive about sponsoring and supporting all types of diversity to get to the senior leadership positions."