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The Power of Raising Your Hand

CSL Chief Medical Officer Charmaine Gittleson on believing in what you bring.

Charmaine Gittleson

As part of our series spotlighting inspiring women in STEM fields, we talked with Charmaine Gittleson, CSL’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO).

 You have been in a few roles over your 13 years at CSL – tell us a bit about your STEM journey and how you came to your current position.

I joined CSL at a time the Australian R&D group was looking for an individual with a medical and industry background to define and lead the company’s first potential global clinical development program. When that program didn’t move forward, I looked around to see where I could contribute to the organization and identified the area of monitoring patient safety in clinical trials. I developed a proposal for a clinical safety department and ended up as the head of Clinical Safety. It was really interesting because I was setting up a new department - relying on my technical skills as well as spending a lot of time working with a variety of stakeholders and establishing networks.

When the opportunity arose to engage in more global studies through a clinical development group led from Australia, I put my hand up. I particularly enjoyed the challenge of stepping away from being a technical expert, and creating an environment for new employees to flourish.

In 2010, we were ready to integrate the clinical departments from our prior acquisitions of ZLB and Aventis Behring. Again, I put up my hand, even though I didn’t have the full experience - I had demonstrated that I could set up groups and give people a vision so I secured the role which was based out of the United States. It was both challenging and rewarding to bring together these existing groups and try to create something greater than the sum of what had been there before.

In my subsequent role as the Senior Vice President for Clinical Development, I was again interacting with a new set of peers and had to work hard to be accepted as the youngest and one of the only females in the group. I’m really not sure if this made it more difficult, because I just didn’t allow it to.

When I moved back to Australia I once again tried to identify where I could add more value. There was a need for increased medical governance as our company is getting more complex so now I am the CMO. In this role, I’m no longer just thinking about R&D but the broader organization and doing what’s best for CSL overall.

You are originally from South Africa and had twins only a few months after moving to Australia. What challenges did you face returning to the workplace?

Having the twins shortly after moving to Australia kept me out of the workforce for a couple of years. When I was ready to return to work, I reached out to the medical affairs industry and was told I had no experience in Australia and didn’t know the Key Opinion Leaders, so I received a lot of pushback. People didn’t see that I had transferable skills.

I joined a contract research organization in an entry level role as a Drug Safety Associate. I knew I had to do something to get into the industry and they had flexible work arrangements so I took the role to see where it would lead me. I decided to demonstrate that I could add more than was expected and was offered a permanent role.

What do you enjoy most about working in STEM?

I like the mix of innovation and people. I love finding new ideas and solutions, working with data, but I also love the ability to interact with individuals and have passionate debates about our work.

How would you define leadership?

For me it’s about recognizing the greatness in others and creating a platform for them to shine and deliver – that’s true authentic leadership.

What role does emotional intelligence play in the workplace?

In science, you work with incredibly bright people who are very passionate but also very analytical. Our interactions as human beings are based on emotions. The greater your empathy, your ability to read someone else’s feelings and help them through a situation, the more productive people are because you end up creating a trusting environment.

My colleagues and I have created the “mutual recognition party” which is all about gathering people who are supportive – regardless of their level. We get together every six weeks to do something we enjoy and talk about our challenges. It’s great because I know if I have a really bad day, I can talk to these women and I’ll end up laughing and feeling better.

How do you strike a balance between work and personal life?

I think there is no balance - there is always a time where one or the other needs you more so it’s about how you manage that. If your work requires you 100 percent, you tell the people in your private life that your focus is elsewhere for that period of time. Eventually they will need you, so you shift your focus and explain that to your work colleagues. Both parties have to accept that you’re 100 percent engaged in the task at hand. It’s hard because sometimes you don’t see that shift happening so it’s a constant work in progress.

What would you say to women aspiring to work in STEM?

Believe in what you bring! Work hard to identify it and then stay true to it. If you know that you’re a good negotiator and there’s a lot of discussion going on, maybe your role is to bring people to consensus. You may not know a lot about the topic but rather than feeling you’re not worthy because you don’t understand the detail, focus on the skill you have!

If you weren’t at work today and time and money were no hurdle, what would you be doing?

I would be making a mosaic or beading jewelry, maybe even on a jewelry weaving course. I used to do a fair bit of it but then ended up not having much time outside of everything else that was going on. I learned to accept that it’s OK for a project to take a year to complete, so I try to work on my projects once a month or so when I have some spare time.

How does your role support CSL’s promise to patient communities?

The CMO role I’m setting up is largely focused on ensuring our patients have access to safe and effective medicines and bringing their voices into what we do at CSL. I try to embed patients in our culture and focus on providing transparent access to information about our medications, always ensuring product safety.

In your view, what role do men have to play in gender diversity?

Men definitely have a role to play and that’s why it’s so great that some of the events aimed at women are now inviting men as well. I would like to see more men attending! As leaders, we have to support any talent, regardless of gender. If it were just women supporting women, we would create a silo and that’s not what we’re trying to achieve. Men need to understand the role women play and be champions of that movement. Of course that doesn’t just apply to gender diversity, but every kind of diversity.