Gender Partnership

Creating gender parity through gender partnership

Takeaways from the HBA’s 3BC Executive Summit, led by chair Diem Nguyen, PhD, North America regional president, global established pharma at Pfizer Inc, and Marianne Fray, director and head, global corporate development for the HBA.
Are you a woman who has had your great idea ignored in a meeting, only to hear a man lauded for sharing essentially the same thoughts moments later? Are you a man who would love to sponsor a female colleague, but fears the gossip spending time with her may cause? Are you a woman who has been told you’re too passionate or talk too much? Are you a man who’s been told to hold in your emotions because “men don’t cry”?

We all experience inequalities. Gender partnership is the path past them into a world where every person is encouraged to bring their best selves to the table.

 Earlier this year, nearly 100 senior leaders from more than 30 life sciences companies gathered at the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association’s Building Better Business Connections (3BC) Executive Summit to take a deep dive into the topic of gender partnership and learn practical ways to create a world of true equality. Led by Rayona Sharpnack, CEO and founder of the Institute for Gender Partnership, the group undertook an enlightening and inspiring journey of self-discovery, reflection and understanding.

What is gender partnership?

Sharpnack defines gender partnership as being “when every member of your team works productively with every other member, regardless of gender. Men and women learn from and leverage each other’s special skills and talents. Creativity, productivity and decision-making are no longer hobbled by miscommunication, misunderstandings or unconscious bias.”

When we have achieved gender partnership, she says, we will work in companies that:

  • Empower and support women leaders
  • Engage men to advance women
  • Identify and transform institutional blind spots and systemic barriers

And not only women will benefit from this achievement. “Men of quality are never threatened by women’s equality,” Sharpnack notes. Although it may seem very threatening to have to now compete with 100% of the workforce, men will benefit too when we can all be our true selves and realize the benefits of all talents.

How can men and women work toward gender partnership?

First, and most importantly, we must recognize that gender bias, however subtle or unconscious it may be in today’s work world, does exist—and we must commit to changing it.

“Privilege is invisible to those who have it,” Sharpnack explains. Many men are unware that there is a gender issue. They honestly do not see it. Others may see the issue, but are overwhelmed and unsure of what to do that will really be helpful. And still others are afraid. All change—even positive change—causes fear of the unknown. As Sharpnack says, “if it were easy, we’d have already done it.”

The journey to gender partnership requires four daily practices. Both men and women need to embark on this journey separately and together to practice the 4Cs:

  • Compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate that distress
  • Curiosity: a strong desire to know or learn something you don’t know
  • Courage: the ability to do something that you know is difficult or seems dangerous
  • Collaboration: finding ways to problem solve together


Step 1: Compassion

Compassion starts with conversation. “Not every conversation makes a difference, but every conversation can,” Sharpnack says. Men and women need to talk about gender issues. We all gain when we truly understand what it is like on the other side of the fence. Set up conversations where everyone can speak freely about their experiences to foster greater empathy. Ask questions that reveal the limits of others’ thinking, offering an opening for the creation of new thought patterns and assumptions. And listen not just for agreement, but for understanding.

Step 2: Curiosity

Be curious and explore the depth of the issues surrounding gender parity and partnership. You can start with the HBA’s own Gender Partnership webinar series. Explore the topic of unconscious bias, read about the business case for gender parity, and educate yourself and your company on these important issues.

Step 3: Courage

Demonstrate courage. Be a truth teller. Start with your own truth and sharing your experience. Then tell the truth at work. Point out bias, even benevolent unconsciousness, such as when a new mom is taken out of the running for an assignment because it is assumed she does not want the travel or the long hours. Leaders may feel they are being helpful, but they need to be made aware that if a woman has earned an opportunity, it’s up to her to decide whether to take the offer.

Tap into the deep moral code your leaders have. Try reframing a conversation about a female colleague and help a leader view it as though the person involved was his wife or daughter. This can often help tap that code and clear the way for deeper understanding.

Step 4: Collaboration

Collaborate to bring change. A full 95% of healthcare CEOs—the leaders who control budgets and set business priorities—are men. So make it your goal to help arm them with the facts and skills they need to champion women at your company and expedite change. No one should feel they are to blame for gender bias, but everyone should feel they are responsible for changing it. Do your part by helping to instill a positive push to raise gender partnership from important to wildly important.



What can each of us do?

  • Identify what men you can enlist and commit to invite them to partner with you.
  • Choose one thing you can do to step up within your organization. Write down your commitment and set a date. Do it.
  • Unless the gender of a colleague is known, start saying she: “The next president of our division will choose her second in command.” “The new CMO in our study will enroll her patients.”
  • Stop gossip. Remember, business gets done over informal interactions. Lunch is business. 
  • Assure gender balanced slates for open positions and assignments. If women do not raise their hands, call on them to step up.
  • Deliver direct feedback to women, early and often. The earlier in her career a woman gets feedback, the sooner she can act upon it.
  • Check yourself for bias. Do an adjective search in performance reviews you write. Do they differ based on gender?
  • Create opportunities for informal interactions for all—women and men.