As part of our ‘Female Leaders: Inspiring Together’ series, we interviewed Ella Sigga Gudlaugsdottir – Vice President Human Resources at Alvotech – about how she encourages more diversity in every organisation she joins and why she sometimes finds it difficult to maintain a work-life balance.


Thank you for being involved in this project. To start with, it would be great to hear a bit about your role and the company you work for.

I joined Alvotech as VP of HR in September last year and I have over 20 years of experience in HR having worked in various organisations. At Alvotech, we have around 600 employees. We’re based out of Iceland, but we have employees in Germany, Switzerland and the US. Alvotech is focused on biosimilar development and hopefully, we will have our own biosimilar drug on the market fairly soon. We have been on a big journey and we have very passionate people working with us here. I enjoy working in such a fast-paced environment – we sometimes joke that we are running a marathon at a sprint pace – but it’s really a great place to work and I enjoy working in this sector.


In terms of your background, why did you decide to start your career in pharmaceuticals?

I sort of fell into it a bit after I finished university. I was given the opportunity to work at a startup in Iceland called deCODE Genetics, which is a biotech company now owned by Amgen, and I was there for 14 years. There were some turbulent times as we went through growth and we faced many hurdles along the way, but it was an exciting journey.

I then went to work in academia, at the Reykjavik University, and it was a different environment with a more academic approach to things and more discussions before we reached decisions. It was a learning curve for me to learn to really sell an idea before you moved ahead.


When you have changed roles in the past, have you ever encountered any barriers as a female leader?

“In every organisation, you need diversity not only in gender, but also age and background.”

I wouldn’t say I’ve encountered many barriers, but I think every woman that is in a leadership position is used to being the only woman in the room, so that’s something that I’m hoping to see change. Thankfully, that is not the case here at Alvotech but in many other organisations – especially when you’re in HR and part of the C-suite – you’re often the only woman in the room. In every organisation, you need diversity not only in gender, but also age and background. I previously worked with a consultant engineering company for a while and that was a fairly male-dominated environment. They had very rigid ideas on what made a good employee and I encouraged them to think about widening their scope to give them access to more potential employees, because much of what you learn, you learn on the job. I encouraged them to be a little courageous when it came to that and see the power in having a more diverse group as well. In Iceland, there are laws around gender composition on boards and I think this is great. If the only way to change things is to force it to happen, then it has to be done. I have three daughters myself and I want them to have a different future and step into roles that are not owned by men.


How are you managing your work-life balance at the moment?

Not very well, to be brutally honest. I work a lot, but I think I always have worked a lot. I have, like I said, three daughters, but I have a husband and he fully participates in everything to do with the home. It sounds strange saying this when it should really be a given when you decide to have a family together. When you start to work too hard, I think you need to decide to stop yourself because no one else will and you need to take time off. I preach that to the people I work with. I’m usually fairly good at preaching to others, but then I turn on the computer when I get home and work until midnight. I work hard because I thrive a bit on making my daughters proud. I want to be a role model for them and hopefully other young girls.


Do you think they will follow in your footsteps into the pharmaceutical and scientific industries?

I am not sure; my oldest daughter is a lawyer in a different sector. I think what has probably fueled my ambition for equality is seeing her encounter many of the hurdles I did 15, 16, 17 years before her. So, I think, ‘ok, we can’t afford to wait, we just have to move’. When you become older and more set in your ways and more established and have more authority probably – which you don’t really feel yourself – and more privilege, you don’t really see the disadvantages young people are facing. So, I saw it a bit through my daughter and I think, ‘ok, the world hasn’t changed as much as I thought. It’s me that has changed’. So that’s why I am fairly vocal about how we can change the world and how we can do it in a way that we don’t have to wait another 120 years. I have to use the power and authority, I have to try and change things for the next generations so they can grow up in a different world than I did.


Throughout your career has there been a female empowerment accomplishment or event that you are most proud of?

“I try to always think about how we can make things better rather than just criticising.”

I have been involved in a lot of stuff, but I usually do it behind the scenes. In organisations and everywhere I go, I try to promote this equality and empower the people I work with. Sometimes my daughters get really tired of me always pointing some things out, but I try to always think about how we can make things better rather than just criticising. I was on the board of the HR Association here in Iceland for many years and we did a lot of events. One of the things that I think we should be prouder of in Iceland is the equal pay act. This is a one of a kind in the world, and I think this is something we could export to other countries. I think it’s a lot of work to start with, but it’s so beneficial for us. We all have unconscious bias, and this can help to look at our organisation in a more structured way.


What would you say has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?

When I worked at the university, we terminated a contract with a person who was disrespectful to women on the internet and that became a big media frenzy here in Iceland. There were pictures of me all over social media, over the papers, because, of course, it was the ‘evil woman’ who fired the person. I’m a HR person, I didn’t make the decision, but I got a lot of messages, emails and people contacting me from the media. Of course, we are professional, and we didn’t talk about it in the public, so I just kept quiet. I’m not a public person and I really became the face of it, and we didn’t really expect that. It took a while and went through the courts and it all went well for the organisation in the end. Individuals on the internet can pick a culprit for themselves and put you out there in a way that is totally different from what you stand for and the values that you have. For a while, I thought it was going to ruin my reputation and it was a tough time.


In terms of life sciences as a whole, what opportunity do you think there is for younger women coming into the industry?

What is interesting about life sciences is that there are a lot of opportunities and I think organisations in biotech and pharma are probably some of the best for females to get into and grow their careers. I can see that there are real possibilities and real positions opening that people should consider.

“When you can see it, you can beat it, so I think it’s really important for women to have role models and see that there are women in every sector to aspire to.”

When you can see it, you can beat it, so I think it’s really important for women to have role models and see that there are women in every sector to aspire to. It’s important for young girls who are going to choose what they’re going to study and what they’re going to be when they grow up, that they have some role models. For many young people, what you remember as a kid influences you. It is so important that we try to realise our own biases and don’t criticise women for something we don’t criticise men for.


Who are your role models would you say?

I think many women in Iceland who are around my age would say Vigdís Finnbogadottir – who was the first female elected president in the world. I think just seeing her becoming a president and waving to people inspired many of the women my age or younger and even older. Of course, there are many other women who are role models to me. I have grandmothers that have done amazing things in their time, without really having any support they just worked hard. When I was a teenager, my favorite movie was Thelma and Louise, it was great to see two women in main roles. With my daughters, I just urge them to be themselves and do what they want.


What advice do you have to encourage more women to get into senior positions and in boardrooms?

Yeah, I think probably being the first woman on any board is the most difficult one. Sometimes I get the feeling that people think there’s only room for one and then it becomes a competition. I would just say go for it, what’s the worst that could happen? It is said that men get promoted because they have potential, but when you’re a woman, you need to have proven yourself – just challenge that all the time. Even if you’re not confident, fake it. There are many people before you who have been promoted with less experience and knowledge so just go for it.


In the next year or so, what are your plans to encourage more women into leadership at Alvotech?

We plan to carry on supporting women in any way we can. I always flag it if I see somebody criticise a woman for something that I think a male person wouldn’t be criticised for. I constantly call it out. As a company it is really important, we show off the fantastic women we have as well to inspire others.


Our ‘Female Leaders: Inspiring Together’ series is running throughout March with the aim of inspiring and supporting women to become future leaders in their respective industries. Follow us on LinkedIn to join the conversation and hear the insightful stories of our featured female leaders.