Ahead of International Women’s Day, Pádraig Hoare talks to Leisha Daly, country director of Janssen, the pharmaceutical firm of Johnson & Johnson, about women leaders
Some of the best would-be female business leaders in the country remain under the radar, according to Leisha Daly — but that can and must be changed, she believes.
Ms Daly is country director of Janssen, the pharmaceutical company of Johnson & Johnson.
She is also part of the firm’s collaboration with the University of Limerick (UL) on the Wistem2d programme, an acronym for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Manufacturing and Design, which is designed to encourage female students to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
At a national level, just 25% of people currently working in STEM-related careers are women.
Ms Daly said she was lucky to have a grounding in the sciences as a child growing up in Laois and Carlow in the 1970s.
From two years in Carlow’s regional college studying science, she progressed to a diploma in Kevin Street in Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and eventually a PhD in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) under Professor John Bonnar.
“I started in the regional college in Carlow in the late 1970s. I would have done the PhD in the late 1980s. Even now, the statistics are not a whole lot better — only 25% of women are in jobs that are STEM-related.”
UL research on women in STEM was “startling”, according to Ms Daly.
“In a number of the courses, whether it is aeronautical engineering or whatever, in some classes there are just two or three women in a class of 25. They did talk about feeling isolated, they did talk about feeling not having that peer group that encourages them to study together, have fun together, enjoy the course together.
“That really was something we felt strongly about. We have a mentoring programme now for the young women which is now in its second year,” she said.
Firms are getting better at work-life balance, said Ms Daly — now is the time for women to seek out opportunities in management.
“I think of myself as a female leader in science. I need to make sure people do not look at me and say they don’t ever want to do what I do.
“You have to make sure it’s something people can aspire to and that it is worthwhile.
“The research felt working in STEM wasn’t conducive to family life. That you need to work around the clock, that the people who work in those roles don’t have a great work-life balance, or it’s just too tough. We need to change that.
“We encourage people to stay in contact when they are off, not to disappear for a year but simply to stay in touch. A lot of companies are now creating a better environment that is more conducive to family life,” she said.
Ms Daly is worried not just about the lack of women in STEM but also leadership roles in general. It is not just a patriarchal society that is a barrier to women progressing, but also a self-belief one, she said.
“I always felt the biggest barrier was myself. I never actually felt being a woman was an issue. I actually felt that I didn’t speak up enough. With the wisdom of hindsight, I would have sat around tables where I was the only woman and didn’t speak up enough.
“I always had an ambition to lead people because I thought I would be good at that. I started off in a technical role and wasn’t managing people. I was given the opportunity to manage a sales team and it progressed from there.
“You don’t get an opportunity if you don’t put up your hand and say you want to be outside your comfort zone and try something different,” she said.
“I’ve had several points in my career where I’ve had that feeling that I need to do something different. Research shows women tend to wait until they have all the qualifications before they go for a position whereas men tend to give it a go. Put yourself out there and go for that position. Grab it by the scruff of the neck and grab it,” she said.
The love of science began at an early age, something Ms Daly feels can be instilled in young people today with more focus on STEM in primary school.
“I have two teenagers myself. It is amazing, talking to them from an early age about different types of leaves, trees, the stars, etc that you realise you can have a huge influence.
“I was fortunate to have primary school teachers that always had nature tables and we were all brought out on nature walks and that kind of thing.
“I’m sure that still happens but I really believe that is where you can get children to develop an interest in the sciences.
“When I went to an all-girls secondary school in Carlow, physics wasn’t available, and neither was honours maths. Speaking to some of the college students now, it seems there are still some schools that don’t provide physics as a subject. That needs to change. It has to be made available for everybody, whether they choose it or not. If it is not there, you’re never going to choose it,” she said.