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Zealand CEO: Few women in management a scandal

Britt Meelby Jensen is one of the few women who made it to the top in Danish life science. “I do everything I can to inspire young, competent women to believe they can do it,” she says.

Media and colleagues describe her as brave, well-educated, ambitious, and structured. She is mother of three, happily married, and driven by the urge to make a difference, take responsibility, and bring out the best in her fellow human beings.

Britt Meelby Jensen is a multifaceted woman and as CEO in Zealand Pharma, one of few women holding a top position in the 30 publicly listed Danish life science companies MedWatch has reviewed.

“Making a difference has always been my motivational force and I also considered going into politics. Developing medicine to make a better life for other people is meaningful and determined my choice of becoming a leader in the life science industry,” she says in an interview about being a woman in a world mainly dominated by male executives.

“My decision about becoming a manager was mainly influenced by a wish to be challenged continuously, have influence, and take responsibility in combination with my interest in people and the satisfaction in making others realize their potential,” adds the CEO.

Inspires young women

Usually, Meelby Jensen does not pay attention to the fact that she is one of Denmark’s few female top managers and a role model for many young women in the industry. Nevertheless, she is aware of the influence she has on her surroundings.

“When I talk to young, competent women, I do everything I can to make them believe that it is possible to combine a good family life and an exciting and challenging job. But I do not hold back the fact that you must be willing to work hard to reach the top,” she says.

Unfortunately, I think all women on my level have experienced lack of acknowledgement or respect

Britt Meelby Jensen, CEO, Zealand Pharma

Hard work, ambitions, and a solid amount of courage have been her tools when she worked her way up through the hierarchies of Novo Nordisk and on to CEO-positions in Dako and now, in Zealand Pharma.

“I have focused on working hard and determinedly and on showing what I can by creating results. And when I proved my worth, being recognized and respected as a woman in the industry was not a problem,” says Meelby Jensen.

However, she is aware that the situation looks different to many women.

“Unfortunately, I think all women on my level have experienced lack of recognition or respect. I also have a few examples of challenges, often related to other people’s worries about combining a management position with being a mother – I am not sure that men experience this to the same extent. But luckily, I have not met these prejudices often,” she says.

Few women a disgrace

Meelby Jensen continuously stresses the importance of maintaining the debate about more women in management.

“On behalf of my gender, I think it is a scandal that there are so few women in management positions and so many competent women out there,” she says.

According to the Zealand CEO, women constitute a majority of the highly-educated staff in life science but also most of the untapped potential.

“The industry does not make sufficiently use of the knowledge, experience, and leadership women can offer. If we can create an environment that takes the very best to the top, we will not only have a bigger pool of talent but also a more meritocratic (skill-based, ed.) approach to develop leaders. And women will be less of a minority in top management than today,” she says.

Men hiring other men are often described as the reason behind the few female executives. This culture creates a vicious and self-reinforcing circle that is hard to break. An explanation Meelby Jensen is familiar with.

“I think there is an unconscious bias of employing someone similar to oneself – so, men consider men the most suitable candidates for a management position. However, I am optimistic as more men apparently become aware of breaking this tradition,” says Meelby Jensen. She adds:

“But I would appreciate it if we saw actual results faster.”

Prioritizing family

To Meelby Jensen, the family and children have not kept her from making a career – on the contrary, it has added an extra dimension to her leadership. And according to her, it is possible to combine family and top job can by planning, buying services, and balancing expectations.

However, the CEO mentions prioritization of family life as a reason why there are so few female executives in Danish life science.

“I believe many women still opt out a management career in favor of family. Some might still expect the woman to take care of the children and home while the man pursues a career. We need to break away from this. It does not have to be like that,” she says.

The companies can do so much more to get more female managers faster. I myself aim to recruit more women

Britt Meelby Jensen, CEO, Zealand Pharma

But a prioritization of the family is not the main reason for the gender inequality in management. According to Meelby Jensen, women are not offered a management position as often as men because of a general lack of structured recruitment and promotion practices and the unconscious tendency to hire someone like oneself.

“And women are generally not as good at networking and promoting themselves and each other as men are.  Women are often more reluctant to take a chance. They would benefit from pushing themselves more into the unknown, helping each other to succeed, and networking more,” she says.

Meelby Jensen is convinced that management diversity creates better decisions and better performance. Thus, the companies should be aware that promoting women is in their interest, too. And act upon it.

“The companies can do so much more to get more female managers faster. I myself aim to recruit more women and be aware of the qualities women possess that men might not,” she says and adds:

“In Denmark, we should not be satisfied with so few women in management positions, that we rank so low compared to other countries, and that the situation is changing so slowly.”

English Edit: Ida Løjmand

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