Accenture Life Sciences R&D Global Head of Research Sara Cortese talks about being a female leader in the Life Sciences industry.
She highlights why it’s important for women leaders to listen to the quietest person in the room, make their voices heard during discussions and network with other executives.
According to Sara, the boardroom needs a more collaborative spirit and more empathy.
She also reveals her top wishes for Life Sciences, including greater diversity but also more innovation through industry-wide adoption of modernized practices for researchers.
Who inspired you to become a scientist?
SARA CORTESE: My parents really helped me realize the bigger picture of what’s going on in the world and I wanted to be involved. And I knew that science was the track to do that. In retrospect I think what really got me to build this career was to have the patience to keep trying things and see what happens. After every decision, I asked, “Is this going to help solve big problems in the world?”
What inspired your leadership style?
My biggest passion is about building connections—the people part. There’s so much innovation to be unleashed by listening. I’ve always been the one to see who isn’t being heard or who is being heard too much in the discussion. Everyone has something to bring to the table. Personally, I encourage “servant-leadership” which is a “roll up your sleeves” and be present style—I emphasize this concept when I build high performing teams.
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Sara Cortese: Empowering women to lean in & listen
Sara discusses being a female leader in Life Sciences & why it’s important to listen to the quietest person in the room
Over your career, have you seen a difference in the way women are accepted into leadership roles?
I’ve noticed a lot of the whole spectrum- from total acceptance, to complete unawareness of exclusion. A lot of organizations are going straight to the next man who’s ready for the leadership role. But there are all these other women they could have chosen. There are a lot of board-ready executive networking events that I take part in to really drive that discussion. But there’s always this thought at the back of my mind that somehow, many women don’t seem to fit that mold, and I don’t know what that mold is. Is it being more ruthless? So, I think upskilling and trying to have that executive presence is needed but also, there needs to be a culture change—less of that ruthlessness and maybe much more of collaboration and empathy.
As a female leader, what can you do to positively impact the gender balance?
Empowering women to really reach out and say, “Hey, I’m available, and here’s what I bring to the table.” Helping them build that skill to lean in and assert themselves as scientists and teaching them to have a voice has been a big passion of mine. And it’s not just women, it’s also the quiet people in the room that have a lot to add. I focus on giving them opportunities and mentoring them on ways to speak up in ways without having to be the loudest person in the room.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
To just do it, try it. I continue to give this advice during my mentoring opportunities. It’s scary to step in sometimes, but if you have an idea, it’s almost never a failure even if it doesn’t work out. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in right now had I not followed that advice. I didn’t make good decisions every time, but in time this attitude has helped me “find myself” and even build my ability to work with difficult people or situations. This “trial by error” journey also taught me how to listen to those voices coming from different cultures, backgrounds and languages.
What are the top three things on your R&D wish for the future?
Number one is for women and diversity overall to be the norm. That it’s not an anomaly for there to be a woman CEO or board member. Everybody says: We have to have at least 20 percent women. Why are we okay with that? My hope is the norm is to have at least 50 percent women executives.
Number two: It’s time for researchers in all avenues to embrace the new technologies that allow us to do research in very different ways. Democratize a lot of things that are currently seen as niche. If everybody uses the tools that are ready now, we could realize new medicines and that whole future of personalized medicines.
Number three: I come from large pharmaceutical companies that really, and rightly so, protect their data because it takes so long for them to make these discoveries and get them into the clinic. But I know there are ways for companies to share data without losing their secret sauce around that data.
Sara Cortese, Ph.D.
Global Head – Research
Sara challenges the status quo to unleash innovation through effective synergizing of people and science across diverse disciplines and cultures.
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