There have always been women who inspire us with their courage, who serve as role models and question the status quo. And there’s no shortage of them. But what will it take going forward to continue to advance gender equality? More women - and men - like them.


From 1896 to the end of the 1990s

A gentle rustling can be heard as the tablets fall into the packaging, the odour of medicines hangs in the air and an occasional breeze wafts through the open windows. It’s 1926, and women wearing serious expressions and white coats and hoods work side by side in a Roche Basel packaging room. Industrialisation is turning more and more women into workers; their husbands’ salaries are no longer sufficient to feed their families.

According to Lionel Loew, from the Roche Basel/Kaiseraugst Historical Archive: "Women have been working at Roche since the company was founded in 1896, mostly in production, packaging or as secretaries." At the time, these positions were as far as a woman could advance in the company. Not even a university degree, rare for women in those days, could improve their lot in the job market. Although unimaginable today, this is how things were – not only at Roche in Switzerland, but throughout Europe.

So, it is surprising that, even back in the 1920s and 1930s, there were women at Roche who did not match any of the classic occupational profiles. But they had a champion in the company leader Emil C. Barell. With his support, some were able to follow unconventional paths. In 1926, Emil posted one of these women, Alice Keller – who held a doctorate in economics – to Japan. In Tokyo, she handled product launches and correspondence with Basel. In 1929, she was the first woman to be awarded the title of Direktorin at Roche, a sensational development at the time.

The first giant step in a long journey

From the 1940s to the 1980s, progress for women at Roche was slow. The professional world was dominated by men, and the topic of gender equality was hardly an issue of public debate in conservative Switzerland. At the beginning of the 1990s, this changed at Roche with the creation of an office for equal opportunities, which was led by Etiennette Verrey. One of her greatest achievements was a day-care centre for the children of employees.

Just a few decades ago, the reality of what women could achieve in the workplace was very different than it is now. Fortunately, there were women like Anny Schwarz, Hilde Pfaltz and Erika Böhni. They held their ground and helped pave the way towards equality.

Dr Anny Schwarz: from secretary to deputy director


In 1923, Anny Schwarz was a young woman desperately searching for a job. Like many people in the wake of the First World War, her parents were in dire financial straits and dependent on their daughter’s income. Luckily, Anny’s father had a friend, Dr R. Boehringer, who worked at Roche in Basel. He put in a good word for the young woman with Emil C. Barell, who was heading the company at the time. And so Anny Schwarz, who was about to take her doctoral examination in economics, was hired by Roche as a secretary.

35 years later, Anny had risen to the position of Deputy Director of the Purchasing Department. In a 1987 interview, she commented on her time with Roche: "They say that where there’s a will, there’s a way – and where the practicalities of the wartime economy were concerned, there certainly was. In Roche operations and purchasing, the word ‘impossible’ was not part of our vocabulary." Given the circumstances of the time, her rise was meteoric. Anny Schwarz is one of those people who made the impossible possible.

Backing women: Roche leader Emil C. Barell and his administrative assistants in the 1930s

Dr Hilde Pfaltz: a single mother with staying power


On 1 April 1929, confident yet with uncertain steps, Hilde Pfaltz, 36, embarked on her first day as a laboratory technician with Roche in Basel. She already sensed that she would not have it easy in her job. In a 1987 interview, she described how, in the period between the two world wars, it was frowned upon for a woman with a child and an academic background to go to work. This was even true for a woman in her circumstances: a young widow raising a small boy on her own.

But Hilde would not let that hold her back. She worked tirelessly and by the time she retired in 1956, the situation for women at work had improved. Her perseverance still looks impressive today.

Roche Basel, 1937: women checking ampoules

Dr Erika Böhni: competent and self-confident


After giving a lecture at a medical conference in the US in 1969, Erika Böhni writes in her diary: "The lectures given by the two men before me were both very undistinguished. My lecture, in simple words and new images, was explosive. Everyone was pleased. Women told me in the women’s lavatory that they’d understood every word." 

Erika Böhni was not short of self-confidence. And rightly so – she played a key role in the development of the chemotherapeutic agent Bactrim and the broadband antibiotic Rocephin. These medicines combined have benefited many hundreds of millions of people, and are still on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines.

In 1987 she said this of her 33 years with Roche: "The high point was my research and development work on every aspect of the chemotherapeutic agent Bactrim. The mutually potentiating effect of the two active-ingredient components trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole was something new and sensational at the time. People thought ‘Böhni's gone crazy’. Until other bacteriologists confirmed it. It was a fantastic, exciting time."

No time to stand still

In 106 countries, gender equality is still 100 years away. This is the conclusion of the widely quoted Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Published in November 2017, the report analyses a total of 144 countries. Trailblazers like Iceland, Finland and Norway notwithstanding, the gender gap persists in every country.

The report delivers another finding. Since the study began in 2006, the WEF has documented continuous progress, but in 2017 the gap between men and women with regard to political representation (such as the number of women in parliament or the number of years with a female head of state), education (such as schooling or literacy rates), health (such as life expectancy and birth and death rates) and economic participation (such as the level of female employment or equal pay) widened again for the first time. The topic of gender equality is still far from resolved. And that’s why the motto of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress.

Where we stand at Roche

Sustainability is an integral part of our business strategy. By ensuring that we include people with various backgrounds, experiences, skills and perspectives, we can thrive and contribute to a successful future.

At Roche, the topic of gender equality has gained more momentum since the early 2000s. One element for making progress is flexible working. It creates better conditions for balancing the demands of family and career for both women and men. Examples include part-time work, working from home, and job sharing.

Although we’ve come a long way, we are committed to improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace. As a company and a society, we cannot close the book just yet. Women still face challenges in the workplace. Reconciling family and career, discrimination in the workplace, equal pay and the proportion of women in senior positions remain an important topic. How do women deal with these challenges at Roche?

"Flexible working is what makes it work"


Nicola Consalvo, Director and Deputy Global Head, Oncology Biostatistics, Roche Basel/Kaiseraugst

"I’m fortunate to have a husband who has given up his job to look after our five children. Also, Roche lets me do much of my work from home – without the option of flexible working I couldn’t possibly do my job full-time."

"I believe mothers and fathers are equally valuable, so if my husband takes care of the children I don’t think they’re missing anything. Deciding to work a full-time job obviously has consequences. But for me it’s about my children being happy. If their mother isn’t, they can’t be either. And achieving success in my professional life makes me happy."

"Let's show what we are made of!"


Pearl Huang, Head of Therapeutic Modalities, pRED, Roche Basel/Kaiseraugst

"As a working mother I have personally benefited from being in organisations like Roche that offer flexible working hours. Early in my career, I decided that every hour I spent away from my family had to be meaningful in a way that warranted my decision to work outside the home. Today I see many courageous working mothers and fathers bringing the same dedication and purpose to Roche. Having the support of our families and Roche emboldens us to take on the world's toughest challenges. Let's show what we are made of!"

"Knowing that people are sick and waiting for our solutions is my number one motivator. Forming and being part of high performance teams is another. Finding win-win solutions to conflicts is a welcome challenge!"

"Biases are one of the biggest challenges in the workplace"


Rosa Lau, Principal Technical Writer, Roche Pleasanton:

"Our conscious and unconscious biases are one of the biggest challenges in the workplace, especially for women. Stereotypes and assumptions on gender differences can get in the way of a fair evaluation. These biases play a major role in women’s professional advancement, and as we know, it is challenging for women to reach board level positions. All of us carry our biases, and by being aware of these biases we can make better-informed decisions."

"As a woman, you have choices in your life"


Maysoun Ramadan, Head of Communications and Public Affairs, Diagnostics Middle East: “It took me a few years of trial and error to figure out what work and family life balance meant. However, you have choices in your life and I have chosen to make it all the way to succeed at work and back home. My passion is to make people feel happy, change their lives and have a positive impact - and communications in diagnostics is a field where you can do this by sharing awareness and by connecting. With this belief and passion, I know that every day I wake up, there is one good change that is waiting for me to tackle and one wish to make come true, which is to be that great inspiration for my kids just like my mother was - and still - is for me!”

More women in senior positions

Roche has committed to supporting the UN’s sustainable development targets. In pursuit of target number five, "Gender Equality", the proportion of women in key leadership positions at Roche has been steadily increasing – from 13 percent in 2009 to 28 percent in 2017. The goal is to raise it to 29 percent by 2020.

Learn more

"From Switzerland to Indonesia"


Katrin Heil, Head of Controlling, Roche Jakarta

"Of course, good performance as well as the support of your line manager are the basis for a successful career. However, networking is also important. One should make others aware about the direction where one wants to develop and the skills and experiences one can bring to a position. So that they’ll remember you when job opportunities arise."

"In the beginning, I did not really feel comfortable to reach out to colleagues that I did not know or that were in a higher level in the hierarchy. But I quickly realised that they are generally open to discuss. Roche has great colleagues and leaders, who have a lot of experience and can share their advice, and who are eager to discover and develop the potential in people."

“Diverse teams produce the best results”


Priya Ratnam, General Manager, Roche Belgium and Luxembourg: “I am inspired by making a difference in patients' lives, and creating that better future for patients and society. Diversity at work and gender equality is important because I fundamentally believe that diverse teams produce the best results."

"Gender equality is especially close to my heart... Growing up in India (a long time ago!), ‘the plan’ was for me to have an arranged marriage by age 20, and take care of my husband and children. Instead here I am in Brussels... having lived in four different continents! I am very grateful to my parents for believing that I could be anything that I wanted to be, and to Roche for giving me the opportunities to learn and grow. I firmly believe that every person should be given the opportunity to be and perform at their fullest potential!”

Gender equality is important to me personally, as I want to ensure ​different leadership styles are equally valued. As an advocate for Gender Parity, I actively volunteer my time to the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association as the Vice-Chair of the Corporate Board of Directors.
Rebecca Vermeulen, Head of Customer Strategy for Global Medical Affairs, Roche Basel/Kaiseraugst

Looking ahead

When we talk about the future, there’s one word that inevitably comes up: digitalisation. How we all work is undergoing fundamental change. It’s hard to predict the impact of digitalisation on the development of women in the workplace, but it’s certain that cloud technologies, for example, will make working from home easier. This advance in the field of flexible working could make it easier to reconcile family and career.

Sharing the responsibility

Another factor that will move closer and closer to centre stage in the future is working part-time. Family models in which both parents reduce the workload are still the exception in Europe. In its latest report from the year 2016, the Swiss Federal Statistical Office had this to say: "Part-time working is very uncommon among fathers in Europe. Only 5.7% of working fathers in the EU with children under six work part-time, and the figure exceeds 10% only in Switzerland (15.3%) and the Netherlands (14.3%)." (Source: Federal Statistical Office: Mothers in the Labour Market.)

But women and men in Generation Y and among digital natives are noticeably more self-confident, and this could lead to the "burden" of reconciling family and career being more widely shared.

A positive future

To make change possible, the prevailing legal, political and social conditions must be right. As we know from history, the role of women in the workplace develops in parallel to society. The Gender Gap Report makes it clear that much remains to be done in this area.

Strong women as role models


Sara Schwegler, a laboratory technician apprentice (Federal VET Diploma specialising in chemistry), Roche Basel/Kaiseraugst: 

"I admire women who continue working when they have a child, and women who deliberately decide not to have children and to concentrate entirely on their careers. Personally, I’d like to have a family one day and continue working. I’m investing heavily in my education, and I enjoy my job – so it would be great if my future husband worked part-time as well."

The challenge of the new


Manuel Zumkeller, HR Recruiter, Roche Basel/Kaiseraugst: 

"When my wife got pregnant, I knew I definitely wanted to reduce my workload as soon as our child was born. The classic model, in which the father leaves the house early in the morning and comes back late at night, isn’t for me. So, I talked to my boss, and we agreed that I’d cut my workload to 80 percent for 15 months. I appreciate the fact that people at work were so understanding – not only my line manager, but my team as well. It was definitely the right decision."

Women have to take their career into their own hands


Julia Halbeisen, an IT specialist apprentice (Federal VET Diploma), Roche Basel/Kaiseraugst: 

"I decided on a career as an IT specialist because I think it has a future. I wasn’t put off by the thought that I’d mostly be working with men. I think it’s cool that there are so many more career opportunities these days than there used to be, for men and women alike. And I think women ought to take them."

My management team in Kenya is currently entirely female. That has nothing to do with any ambition on my part to increase the quota of women in leadership positions. What matters for me is how qualified someone is, not their gender.
Andre Mendoza, Country Manager Kenya, Sub-Regional Head East Africa, Roche Kenya

Diversity and Inclusion at Roche

Gender equality is strongly supported through mentoring, sponsorship and development opportunities. There are also an increasing number of professional women’s networks across the company, providing a platform to share experiences. Importantly, we have concrete corporate goals with clear timelines to increase the proportion of women in senior positions. Today women represent 49% of the total workforce at Roche. In management 42.1% are women.

“By ensuring that we include people with various backgrounds, experiences, skills and perspectives, we can innovate, thrive and contribute to a successful future. Gender equality is an important part of our inclusive approach and ultimately means we all have the same chance to succeed. I am proud of the countless opportunities women have at Roche today, and our vision to unlock the potential of all our people,” says Cris Wilbur, Head of Human Resources at Roche.

Fuelling that ambition are global goals, programmes and governance as well as local action plans in more than 70 countries around the world.  

On International Women’s Day, we highlight our commitment to #pressforprogress for our people, for our patients and for the communities in which we work.

Learn more about Diversity and inclusion at Roche

Tags: People, Culture, Society, Sustainability