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In May 2010, a New York jury ordered Novartis to pay $250m in punitive damages to nearly 6,000 current and former female employees of its US pharmaceuticals division, in what plaintiffs’ lawyers claimed at the time was the largest gender discrimination case in the country.

The jury decided the Swiss pharmaceuticals giant had discriminated against women in pay, promotion and pregnancy. The ruling provided less than ideal publicity for a multinational that, like its Swiss peers, prided itself on a multicultural environment and blindness to race, colour or creed.

Now, Novartis is being hailed as a pioneer for an executive leadership development programme targeted exclusively at women that experts say is a milestone in its field.

“There’s no link between the two,” asserts Joseph Jimenez, chief executive, and formerly head of pharmaceuticals, the division now running the programme for a second year. “When I was in pharmaceuticals development, I recognised the need to promote female executives within the division and the group. The need is there, whether at Novartis or other corporations.”

His aim was to give Novartis better exposure to top female talent and accelerate the careers of those thought suitable. But the idea of singling out a single sex group proved neither conventional – nor uncontroversial.

“It’s an absolute minefield. Most big companies are not doing this sort of thing precisely because it is so controversial,” says Liz Mellon, a former London Business School professor now at Duke Corporate Education.

“Novartis, like other big companies eager to develop internal talent, runs plenty of executive development courses,” explains Claudia Bidwell, head of talent management, organisation development and staffing for Novartis Pharmaceuticals. Novartis turned to Duke for a customised project, after a beauty contest, because there was nothing like it on the market. “I spent a lot of time trying to find a programme like this.”

What was particularly unusual – apart from the single-sex composition – is the scheme’s breadth. Spread over a year, the programme involved 10 days of group sessions, in three blocks. Participants engaged not just in conventional team building exercises, but much deeper and wider development modules. Those included leadership skills, from strictly personal, to leading others, to leading a business. There was also an unusually close involvement with top management. Apart from direct coaching, participants were split into groups, each directly mentored by a member of Novartis Pharmaceuticals’ executive committee and each addressing a genuine strategic issue.

Initially Mr Jimenez, and later David Epstein, his successor as head of pharmaceuticals, were personally involved, addressing opening and closing sessions, and meeting participants regularly. “There is sponsorship at the very highest level, Such commitment is unusual”, says Prof Mellon.

Candidates were nominated by their managers amid a tough selection procedure. Initially, Novartis acknowledges, there were mixed feelings about participating in an all female group. Some had concerns the initiative might be interpreted primarily as political correctness. Others feared resentment among non-selected colleagues. “We’re talking about taking 30 women from a division with 50,000 employees and giving them unprecedented exposure to top executives,” says Ms Bidwell.

Participation also involved significant extra work. “There was a lot of self-reflection and self-discovery,” recalls Carol Lynch, a 44-year-old Briton and 17-year Novartis veteran on the first programme. Like more than half the participants, Ms Lynch, formerly head of new products, business development and licensing at Novartis’s US pharmaceuticals arm, was subsequently promoted.

Novartis’s relationship with Duke has continued into a second programme, with another group of about 30 women. Some tweaks have been made based on feedback. Participants’ direct superiors are more closely involved and responsibilities on the project teams more evenly distributed. But otherwise, the structures and Duke teaching staff are largely unchanged.

A decision on a potential third programme will only be made after completion of Novartis’s annual talent review process in April. There is a groundswell for repetition, but Novartis has yet to decide whether so much talent development resources should remain focused exclusively on women, or be redirected to other groups that could benefit from the same attention.

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