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Invaluable Insights on Gender Diversity

By 02/02/2019Nov 23rd, 2021No Comments

A few brief invaluable insights on Gender Diversity and more from the COO of Aspen Holdings, Lorraine Hill.

By Wendy Mahoney, MD of Newmella Holdings


Lorraine Hill, COO Of Aspen Pharmacare Holdings


As a former young female executive I was never conscious of male dominance until I got to the boardroom and even then I did not reach out to gain learnings from those who had gone before me. It is this drive to learn that propels me now as an entrepreneur to speak to those who have succeeded under unconventional circumstances.

Heading the operations of South Africa’s largest pharmaceutical company in a field where males dominate would indeed be unconventional.

Lorraine says growing up in Zimbabwe was nothing like Johannesburg and thus exposed her to different experiences in relation to men and women at home and in the workplace. She often simply does not notice she is surrounded by men as she noted at a recent JP Morgan conference in San Francisco.

They say creating gender parity starts first with raising to consciousness our unconscious biases through dialogue and then moving to conscious commitment and then parity which is when one is unconsciously inclusive. It would appear Lorraine has reached a level of unconscious inclusion.

Part of the process Lorraine highlights is to understand that men and women behave differently, and that compromise is needed. Men talk about the Christmas dinner and women just get on with it. What a man may see as bossy, a woman may see as efficiency. As women are more action oriented in a meeting and men more discussion oriented, a compromise is required between the two to ensure rapport. A compromise may be a brief general discussion establishing connection before moving onto action items.

Something I have grappled with myself is why men are generally more confident than women, often over stating achievements whilst women understate theirs and why men support each other more than women? Is it one’s desire for homogeneity as we are wired to like what we see in the mirror and not like that which is different to us? Never mind our physical and behavioural differences, we have different neurological strengths propelling women to have greater EQ skills as opposed to a man’s more objective reasoning skills.

Perhaps it is simply because we are less evolved in the work place given we entered the race later and are now playing catch up as we take ownership of our place. We forget the context and that many predominantly male networks were situational and established after the war out of necessity when sons needed to take over family businesses with little know how. Lorraine believes knowledge is power and its time women learn from men, take and own their seat at the table and know what is on the menu including all the ingredients.

There is still the challenge though of this behaviour being intimidating or considered untoward. We all simply just need to adjust, though adjusting is not always comfortable especially in the beginning. We are wired to remain in comfort zones of what we know, for safety. The unknown is not safe and triggers our fight or flight, often unconsciously.

Lorraine notes another difference between a man and a woman that can lead to tension, men address matters head on and resolve them, whereas women often need time to process matters which can be misconstrued as “sulking”.

Another question I posed of Lorraine was whether men are intimidated by successful women and she feels in many cases yes as it threatens a man’s historical legacy as the provider rooted in their neurology. If they are not providers then who are they, what is there place in society? It is not safe to not be what you have always been, it is the unknown.

The key though is that Innovation in the current age is imperative, countless research articles show that diversity and specifically gender diversity greatly enhances a company’s ability to innovate. It is critical to raise these discussions and have the dialogue as this dialogue is what moves us from unconscious bias. We shouldn’t shy away from the topic for fear of offending, we should face it head on. As Carl Jung noted, what you resist persists and what is unconscious projects poorly, what is raised to consciousness projects well.

Lorraine absolutely sees value in diversity across the board. We are all wired differently, and this is where our value lies in relation to the diversity of skills and thinking needed to innovate.

Lorraine thanks her parents for her inclusive views. She was raised in a time where women were encouraged to caretake the home, though she was left to pursue her individual passions and truly loves what she does. A belief that she has passed onto her children, “do what you want – if you are not happy you won’t be successful”, and to those within her sphere of influence. Individuals are encouraged to expose themselves to different functions, to enjoy the experience, learn and share knowledge whilst respecting boundaries.

This raised the topic of the increasing percentage of millennials in the work places and the Gen Zs or Alphas behind them. Lorraine feels that curiosity has been lost and to question the status quo is an essential skill required to innovate. Another concern being the level of expectation of this generation, waiting to be cultivated instead of seizing opportunities. Millennials are certainly governed by a different set of values than the generation before them. Managers need to adjust to these purpose driven millennials who will no longer work simply for a pay check, they want to be inspired by the higher purpose of their leaders and the organisation and they want to know what is in it for them. A clear spelling out of what the company expects of them in exchange for what they expect and if there is a mismatch then the relationship best not be embarked on.

A cross-generational challenge that Lorraine notes facing the current work force is a loss of attention span, a loss of attention to detail and the loss of critical and systemic thinking. This is leading to an increase in the need to address soft skills such as meditation to reduce the clutter of the mind and enable attention and focus on detail. To solve the problems this new age is posing we need to reduce multiple sensory inputs and gain the clarity needed to think more clearly. To break down a problem into all its components and then synthesise those components in a variety of creative ways and test these solutions, fail, learn, adapt and repeat.

Personally, I am a big fan of combining Neuro-Linguistic Programming and business innovation theory as when one understands the language of their mind they can transform their thinking and consciously break free from patterns and programs of behaviour they were not conscious of. An essential skill for any leader in the current age. This combined with an understanding and buy in of the values that underpin innovation is a catalyst to innovation for profit.

Perhaps we will see work forces of the future selectively removing technology and revert to the days of verbal engagement, breaking down those silos and enhancing collaboration on a foundation of inclusion and with respect of boundaries and a clear understanding of expectations.

Lorraine and I ended our enlightening discussion with a chat about what she saw as Aspens role in a world that is rapidly evolving specifically in respect to Bio- and Nanotech advancements. Lorraine said to stay relevant you focus on the customer, the patient, what they need. Spoken like a true innovator, what value can we add to our consumers. Whilst Aspens focus on new drug R&D is not noted as a key strength, what was noted is their footprint in emerging countries making them a very attractive prospective partner in the emerging market. It’s good to know what your strengths are and are not and what you bring to the table as value. Each of us as individuals and companies have unique value, do you know what you bring to the table?

In her final words Lorraine emphasised that we must all remember that we are all part of an ecosystem and our role is to ensure we provide that ecosystem with as much value as we take or that ecosystem will “autocorrect”. This extends to the natural ecosystem within which we live, are we caretaking our environment or are we taking more value than we are giving and risking an “autocorrect”, a natural disaster of some sort.

So, I will leave you with that thought in mind – innovation is the exchange of value in an ecosystem that extends to all systems connected to that ecosystem including nature. You provide value (product or service) and that consumer gives you value (money) in exchange. Are you providing the value that warrants the value you receive or are you risking an “autocorrect”?

Remember that what makes us human is our ability to learn and apply learnings, I hope this article provided you with some learnings with which to apply.