As the Sanofi delegation prepares for the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society global meeting, hosted for the first time in Singapore in September, Karen Linehan, Executive President, Legal Affairs and General Counsel and founding member of the company’s Gender Balance Board, shares her path to the top and why becoming a gender-balanced company is key to Sanofi’s future.
“Gender equality continues to be a challenge with women still underrepresented at senior levels in our organization,” said Karen Linehan, the Executive Vice President, Legal Affairs and General Counsel at Sanofi. A straightforward comment that reflects the assertive, open personality of a woman who has decided to be the change she wants to see. Having worked her way up through a primarily masculine environment, Linehan is a role model and an active mentor for many women inside and outside her company.
Her father, deeming “there was already a lot of teachers” in the family, suggested she consider a career in law, but Linehan initially chose politics.
After graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., she first served on the Speaker’s congressional staff of the U.S. House of Representatives for 10 years. While she enjoyed it, her father’s words remained in the back of her mind and she started studying law at night. “I became very attracted to the legal profession because ultimately you can help people; you have this notion you can actually do good,” she said.
She started her legal career as an associate in a mid-size law firm in New York, and joined Sanofi as an assistant general counsel in 1991. Linehan moved to Paris in 1996 to work in international law, contributing to a considerable amount of key projects and supporting the substantial growth of the company.
The last 27 years at Sanofi have been nothing but an adventure, supporting the entire spectrum of departments, from R&D to industrial affairs, and rising from assistant general counsel to her current role in 2007.
Her international experience means she knows a thing or two about diversity. Working with colleagues from a variety of countries who have followed very different career paths is one of her strongest motivators: “It makes me feel we can positively impact people’s lives,” she said.
Linehan’s engagement for gender diversity and equality is strong, active and visible and her sponsorship was instrumental to the first “Gender Balance Board”. Initially set up at corporate level, the Board has morphed into a strong network that is actively changing the game at a global level to make sure women have the same opportunities as men to build their careers.
“As a global healthcare leader, we are focused on our ambition to become a top three, innovative, global and diversified human healthcare company embracing transformative technologies and focused on our areas of excellence, earning the respect and trust of the people and the patients we serve. In the fast-moving environment we operate in, we are always looking to the future and seeking out new growth opportunities. Becoming a gender-balanced company is key to what we want Sanofi to be in the future,” said Linehan.
She repeats tirelessly: “Gender Balance is a statistically-proven business driver. Companies with 50% of women in senior operating roles achieve 19% higher rates of return on equity on average. Making gender balance a reality rather than a mere aspiration will help generate growth opportunities and ensure sustainability to address the challenges we face.
“Women have an increasing presence in every field of our industry, where they are key decision makers and stakeholders. By matching our own internal structure with this reality, we will gain a better understanding of our stakeholders, better anticipate their needs, and better serve people and patients worldwide.
“Finally, fostering gender equality at Sanofi will offer a massive competitive advantage to help us attract and retain top talents.”
However, in Sanofi, like many other companies, diversity dwindles higher up the organization. This is why the Gender Balance Board has decided to strengthen leadership development programs to foster accelerated learning and enrich the “Women Pipeline for the future generation of Executives”.
“One of the current challenges is how women can develop and maintain an international career,” continued Linehan. “It’s a challenge for any family, any couple with two incomes, or when you have elderly parents or children with special needs.” To overcome this challenge Sanofi is working on specific policies, building a more inclusive work environment and making Sanofi a better place to work for women and men.
“We are fully aware that a step change will be required to reach this ambition. The journey has only begun.”