Nicole Spieker, CEO, PharmAccess, The Netherlands

“IF AN ORGANIZATION DOESN’T HAVE WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP POSITIONS, THEY ARE GOING TO HAVE A HARD TIME CHANGING THE GENDER CULTURE”

Interview with Nicole Spieker, CEO, PharmAccess, The Netherlands

Prioritizing gender balance in any organization is a smart business strategy. An IFC report on the lack of women in leadership positions in healthcare found that when they do climb up the ranks, gender diversity boosts innovation and collaboration. But, as Nicole Spieker, CEO of PharmAccess, explained in an interview with IFC, if women don’t have a strong presence on the executive team, efforts to elevate them will fall flat. A consistent, proactive approach to recruiting and mentoring women, said Spieker, has the power to accelerate the number of women in leadership roles, particularly in the healthcare sector.


Why is it that while women make up a majority of health sector workers, they are underrepresented in leadership roles?

Several factors contribute to this. Women tend to integrate work and their personal lives so that when they have children, they may take a professional break or stop altogether to care for the kids. This can hamper women’s careers.

How leaders address work-life balance is a conversation that should be had with both men and women. However, women need to step up and take a more proactive approach to pursuing leadership opportunities and not be quick to assume they aren’t qualified enough. After all the time and effort put into obtaining a career in healthcare, we need to be doing everything we can to retain and elevate women to reach leadership positions. We also need to be more flexible in not just offering a one-size-fits-all work model.

What has driven your advocacy for women's leadership in the workplace?

I have always been an ambitious person. However, I have gotten where I am today because of champions who not only believed in my abilities, but also encouraged me and made sure I was visible within the organization. One of my earliest mentors was the founder of PharmAccess, Joep Lange. Joep invited me to stand on the stage beside him and fully own my ideas and contributions. My predecessor Monique Dolfing-Vogelenzang encouraged me to pursue the CEO position and has continued to guide and support me, months into my role.

Now, it is my turn to proactively engage the next generation of women and give them opportunities to advance because they don’t have the benefit of an old-boys network. I am trying to build an all-girls network. If an organization doesn’t have women in leadership positions, they will have a hard time changing the gender culture.

How did the IFC’s Women in Leadership Working Group motivate gender inclusion at PharmAccess?

Gender equality in the workplace has always been a priority for my female colleagues and me, and some men as well. We wanted to be part of the bigger movement empowering women; for other organizations to validate what we are doing. Leaders at international institutions look to IFC for new perspectives on how to navigate the world. We feel energized to be part of an ongoing global conversation about women in the workforce. IFC’s working group has helped us amplify our message of gender inclusivity within PharmAccess, and the response has been so favorable. Women are stepping up.

How is PharmAccess implementing gender equality in its workforce?

Achieving gender equality in the workplace is a journey. It requires the constant proactive engagement of women and a willingness to be critical of the deeply ingrained ways of thinking about what equality means. If we conduct a round of interviews and all the candidates are men, we have work to do to recruit women actively. If an event panel consists only of men, we proactively find qualified women. We make sure we are not unintentionally paying women less by regularly benchmarking salaries.

We appointed a Gender Officer as part of our senior leadership team to help us dive deeper into how we can better promote a positive gender culture. For instance, we now analyze our turnover rate and look at how many employees who leave are parents of young children. We are trying new models that make it easier to retain women throughout their careers, such as modifying the days and hours they work. Achieving a truly balanced work environment requires constant effort and a lot of introspection. And in our communication, ensuring that women and men are equally represented is an important strategy.

What strategies have been most effective for promoting gender equity?

We no longer accept that there are no qualified women for a particular job or a panel discussion, or that communications material has only men talking as gamechangers. We shine a spotlight on any situation where women are not represented, whether it is a marketing video or a strategy meeting. We amplify this message to our subsidiaries and partners as a matter of routine. We also actively recruit women to head up our country offices in Africa or encourage strong existing female employees to step up for any leadership role. I coach and support these women throughout their careers as my champions have done for me.

What advice would you give to women struggling to overcome obstacles in male-dominated companies?

My first piece of advice would be not to wait for good things to happen. More often than not, when I approach women about pursuing leadership positions, they tell me they are not qualified enough. When I approach men with comparable skills, they ask me how much the job pays. Women shouldn’t be passive about the evolution of their careers. My second thought is that women should not seek to land leadership positions by themselves. The stereotypes of women being polite and passive will only be broken when we build an old-girls club that empowers women to reach their fullest potential.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published in June 2022


Nicole is CEO of PharmAccess, a nonprofit organization focused on Sub-Saharan Africa aiming to strengthen healthcare systems and leave no-one behind. Prior to this role, Nicole was the Director of Quality and Director of East Africa for PharmAccess. When she joined the organization in 2009, Nicole initiated SafeCare, a certification initiative to standardize and improve the quality of healthcare facilities. Under Nicole’s leadership, SafeCare achieved international recognition and has been used by more than 4,500 facilities in 14 countries across the African continent. Nicole holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics and worked at the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, before joining PharmAccess.