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Celebrating International Women's Day | Q&A with Emma Ball

Date: 05 March 2020
Author: FB Rice
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To celebrate women’s achievements leading up to International Women’s Day, FB Rice invited six female leaders across a variety of industries to discuss this year’s IWD theme, #EachforEqual. Continuing on in our series is Emma Ball from CSL who shared her thoughts with Patrick McManamny.

Please describe your transisition to a senior scientist.

I have always had a strong passion for all areas of science from the earliest time I can remember.  After leaving school, I had hoped to study medicine but didn’t get the marks at the end of year 12. After this bitter disappointment, I went off to study science instead. I now look back on this with gratitude and relief as I wouldn’t be where I am today without the medicine door closing firmly on me then. (It always strikes me as somewhat sad that many of us starting out on a career in science have done so as a plan B after not getting into med, rather than embracing science as an exciting career path in and of itself.)

As an undergrad I always knew I was not destined for a career at the bench, despite loving science, but went on to do Honours and a PhD anyway. I chose to do a PhD for a couple of reasons: firstly, because I didn’t really know what else to do career-wise and, secondly, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could reach the top of my profession (back then I was naive enough to think that doing a PhD was reaching the top, now I realise that it is just the first step!). One of my PhD supervisors once described me as a ‘drifter’ and I think he was right (at the time).

Following my PhD I then had the great luck of ‘drifting’ into Prof Gail Risbridger’s research group at Monash University. Gail was a wonderful mentor and advocate for young women scientists. Gail knew that I was becoming interested in commercialisation so she gave me the latitude to work not only as a post-doc scientist but also gave me the responsibility of running her small startup company, Prostate Diagnostics Pty Ltd (PDPL).  That experience with PDPL gave me the opportunity to work closely with the business development team at Monash University, report to a board of directors and be accountable to investors. I loved it! Around that same time I started my MBA as I realised that I quickly needed to learn a new language. I now like to think of myself as bi-lingual: I can speak science and business.

Could you expand on your transition to CSL and subsequently, to your current position.

Following my time at Monash and PDPL, I knew that I wanted to further my career in commercialisation and to transition from the academic sector into industry. I joined PrimaBiomed Ltd, an ASX-listed biotech with four subsidiary companies each developing different technologies ranging from early research to Phase II clinical. I was Project Manager across all four, reporting to the CEO, Marcus Clark. I think of my time at Prima as being my truly formative years. At any one time I could be presenting to investment bankers, speaking to patients, negotiating agreements, answering the phones, debating the science. It really was a baptism of fire and I loved the adrenalin of being in the world of small-biotech. 

After a few years there, it was time to try new things and move on to a bigger company and so I tapped my networks for an introduction to CSL. I started in 2006 as a Project Manager and since then have had many different roles – I have lost track of how many business cards I have had or how many times I have moved offices within the Parkville site. Some of those roles have included R&D Program Management, Commercial Development, Alliance Management, Therapeutic Area Strategy. I am now within the Global Licensing Group and my long-winded title is “Director of Strategy & Business Development, Head of Search of Evaluation”. Essentially, I work on negotiating and executing licensing deals globally at all stages of development. I also oversee the identification and assessment of clinical stage and on-market assets for in-licensing or acquisition.

I have had the privilege of witnessing and contributing to some remarkable achievements. When I joined the company in 2006 we had approx. 7,000 employees and a market cap of around US$9B. Today we have over 25,000 employees and a market cap of around US$110B. Importantly, we are making a huge difference to the lives of our patients who have serious, life-threatening illnesses.

One of the best things about CSL is the ability to work closely with so many wonderfully intelligent people across a range of different functions. I have the pleasure of being able to tap into the minds of a broad range of subject matter experts around the globe. If I need an opinion on some obscure aspect of Dutch law, want to understand the US reimbursement landscape for a particular class of drugs, have a question about how a particular immune cell is activated, or need advice on how to deal with a particular stakeholder, there is always somebody who I can chat with. I would love to name them all personally but after nearly 14 years there are too many people who have helped me along the way (I hope you all know who you are!). 

What advice would you give to women entering your profession?

Flexibility is key. There are no pre-defined career pathways in this industry. This is both a curse and a blessing. It makes it very hard for somebody starting out to imagine what their role might be in 5 or 10 years’ time. In fact, that role probably doesn’t exist today. On the flip side, this opens up wonderful possibilities to create the role that you want. Not one of the roles that I have held was the result of a job advertisement or formal interview. Each one has arisen from me shaping my earlier role into the next one with the support of my superiors and broader networks.

I would encourage new starters to try things out of their comfort zone. Even if the role is not one that you pictured yourself in, it can often lead to new opportunities and take you in excitingly unexpected directions. I often say that careers only make sense in retrospect. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that you truly understand how one opportunity led to the next and so on.

Also, try to give back. This industry is hugely challenging! We are all constantly on a steep learning curve so if you can help bring people along with you, share with them what you have learned along the way and accelerate their development, then we all rise on that same tide.

What does gender equality mean in your industry?

For me personally, I believe that gender equality means that men and women have the very same opportunities and enjoy the same support to develop their careers and succeed in their chosen roles, both professionally and domestically. Not only do we need equal opportunity in the workplace but we also need to encourage equal opportunity in the home, giving both men and women individual licence to decide how to nurture their own careers and families. This will mean different things for different people but ultimately it comes down to a having choices and not being pigeonholed into stereotypes. Gender equality is not a zero sum game. It is not about men reluctantly conceding power to women.

".....I believe that by women and men having equal choices in life, both benefit by being able to participate fully professionally, domestically and within their communities. As Hillary Clinton said back in 1995, “human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights”."

One of the challenging things about our industry is that it is truly global. That means many early morning or late night teleconferences. While this can be taxing, both the men and women in my workplace are using it to their advantage and embracing flexibility. It frees us to be around to pick up kids from school, attend appointments during the day, work from home etc etc. Strangely, this extended workday means that it is possible for both parents to have full-time careers because we have the flexibility to structure our days around personal commitments that fall within traditional working hours.

Do you believe individualism is important for gender equality and, if so, why?

Wow, that is an interesting question. Yes and no.

On one hand I do firmly believe that individualism is important aspect of gender equality. Individuals absolutely must take responsibility for their own career development and other areas of life. Ultimately, it is up to you to forge your own path. The individual women who are the trailblazers in their chosen fields pave the way for those of us aspiring to follow in their footsteps. This is particularly true for women in STEMM (think of the movie Hidden Figures – gutsy, super intelligent women shaping their careers and opening the door for the next generations).

Having said that, time has shown that we do need a structural approach to effect meaningful, enduring change and this must include other forms of diversity, not just gender. While our society certainly has made significant strides since previous generations, the rate of change is still glacial and disappointingly progress is stalling and actually going backwards in some areas (see for example AusBiotech – diversity & inclusion; AICD - board diversity; WEGA). We have now had decades of equal or greater numbers of women graduating from universities. The pay disparity swings in favour of men immediately as graduates enter the workforce, becoming more skewed as those cohorts rise to management and senior leadership positions. This is not as simple as saying that more women are attracted to lower paid roles, taking time off to have children etc, but it is also due to women receiving less pay for the same jobs. This starts right at the outset and is compounded by men generally rising through the leadership ranks more successfully than women. It is the same story whether we are talking about industry, academia, politics or other professional areas.

Just to be clear, I want to point out that CSL is doing quite well in this respect. 57% of our workforce and 50% (four out of eight) of our non-executive directors are women. Nevertheless, my personal view is, that in general, structural measures such as quotas, mandatory reporting and transparency around pay are necessary across various professions. Nothing else has worked and, hello, it is 2020! To paraphrase author and finance journalist, Catherine Fox, the driver for this is not about being ‘nice’ to women. The business case absolutely shows time and time again that more diverse organisations are more successful based on various different metrics. Organisations have a responsibility to their shareholders, customers and other stakeholders to advocate for diversity, not to be ‘nice’ but because it is an economic necessity.

 

Tags:  IWD2020, EachforEqual, International Women's Day, Emma Ball, CSL, IWD, equality, collective individualism, celebrate women, women in business

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