As part of our ‘Female Leaders: Inspiring Together’ series, we interviewed Rachel McNeill – Founder & CEO at PharmaPhix – about her new pharma services company and why she feels society’s biggest challenge is accepting that we all have an equal role in balancing work and family life regardless of gender.


Thank you for joining us and taking part in this campaign. Please could you tell us a little bit about your current role? 

I was previously a Chief Operating Officer for a pharmaceutical company in Galway, but I came home to Belfast and moved in with my mum to look after her when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer; sadly she passed away in August of last year. So, I just decided that life’s too short and my mum was always encouraging me to open up my own business, so I started my own pharmaceutical service business called PharmaPhix here in Northern Ireland during the pandemic. I see a lot of opportunity here in Northern Ireland with us continuing to align with the EU as well as the UK, so it’s an exciting time for me, I see opportunity out of a crisis.


What does your company, PharmaPhix, specialise in? 

It’s a pharmaceutical service company and by utilising the Northern Ireland Protocol we have set up what is essentially a Brexit solution for pharmaceutical companies that are manufacturing in the UK and want to continue exporting to Europe. The main aim of the business is to ensure patients in the UK and Europe continue to access the medications they need. We help facilitate UK manufacturing companies to continue exporting into Europe and likewise, we help import medications coming from manufacturers in Europe and non-EU countries into the UK. Secondly, we provide services to help pharmaceutical companies obtain registration for new facilities and products. I’ve previously worked with companies to help them get FDA approval and European approval. I have a lot of contacts in India, Jordan and across the Middle East. Lastly, we also troubleshoot should a company have issues with a product formulation or in an out of specification scenario. It’s a business that really utilises my 20 years of experience in the industry. I worked my way through from production manager through into QC, QA, QP roles and onwards into C-suite.


What inspired you to start your career in the pharma industry? 

“I was really inspired to move into science because I wanted a purpose in life and I wanted to be able to improve lives and how else better to do that than through a pharmaceutical company.”

From a young age, I was always interested in science and, much to my dad’s despair, I let go of my art GCSE to focus on science and maths A level. I wanted to prove to my dad that women can be just as good scientists as we are artists and carers. So, I was really inspired to move into science because I wanted a purpose in life and I wanted to be able to improve lives and how else better to do that than through a pharmaceutical company. I know it does get bad press sometimes, but look at the progress that science has made in terms of health and improving the health of individuals and lives as well. So, you know, where else better to get that purpose than through the pharmaceutical industry.


Out of interest is there any reason your father particularly wanted you to focus on art?

I was particularly good at art and at GCSE I was actually one of the best in Northern Ireland and my art was displayed in one of the universities. My dad was so pleased and he wanted me to continue with art. But I decided, no, I want that purpose and I want to be able to make improvements in people’s lives and make a difference through science. I know science isn’t easy, and I always say that to my children, but nothing easy is ever worthwhile. I wanted to show the men in my family that women are just as good scientists as they are artists and homemakers. So, it was more of a challenge for me from a young age to prove myself and prove to the world that women should be treated equally in the world of science and pharmaceuticals.


What barriers have you encountered during your career growth and success as a female leader? 

I must say that I’ve had great support from my family, including the men in my family such as my father, grandfather and especially my husband, I have been lucky in that way. I’m quite privileged to work in the UK and Europe and whilst there are definitely underlying issues here, we are privileged here compared to other countries. When I’ve had to travel abroad for work, I have noticed the differences in how women are treated versus how they would be treated here in the UK and Europe. There was an article recently in the news where the Tokyo Olympics Chief said women talk too much in meetings, I’ve actually experienced similar comments in my career, but it tends to be from the older generation. It’s great to see that in the younger generation, men are accepting women as equals and they’re playing their part both in the home life as well as work life. I would say whilst there are challenges for women in Europe and the UK, we’re probably less exposed to some of the barriers that women see elsewhere in the world.


You mentioned that you have children, how do you manage your work-life balance? 

“I think as a society we need to realise that the responsibility of balancing life and work has to be placed upon men and women equally.”

It’s probably not a good question for me. I worked away from home for 10 years Monday to Friday and I could never have done that without my husband and family. I think as a society we need to realise that the responsibility of balancing life and work has to be placed upon men and women equally. To see successful women such as Kamala Harris taking up her position in the US, I think it’s fabulous to show the world globally that women do have a lot to bring to the table. You can see in countries where women are actually promoted and developed, there are benefits to the economy as well as to society. So, it’s breaking down those barriers, but it is getting better. But as we can see, from situations such as when the female activists were killed in Pakistan, we still need to continue to push for progress for females globally.


What accomplishment are you the proudest of? 

I’d say like many women, it’s probably being able to achieve qualifications through life and also balancing that with having a family and a career at the same time. I think that for many women it is a real accomplishment. Balancing work and life is a tricky thing. I am studying for an MBA now. It’s a lifetime of learning in this industry and being able to blend it in with your family life as well as your career is a challenge.


How are you getting on with the MBA? 

Great, I hope to finish in April. I’m looking to see what else I can do afterwards but my husband may divorce me! But I just love learning constantly. After studying science, I wanted to do a business degree as well, so the MBA was perfect. It’s actually a great course that covers ethics, managing across cultures and also talks about gender equality. It is teaching the males and females on the course that we are all equal and that’s what we need to do to be able to break down these barriers for women.


What’s the biggest challenge you faced and how did you overcome it? 

I remember my first trip to India in 2006 and when I was greeting our guests, I was handed a jacket and asked for a cup of tea and a cup of coffee… there was a look of shock and horror when the man realised that I was actually chairing the meeting.”

I’d say the biggest challenge was actually when I had to start travelling for business. I remember my first trip to India in 2006 and when I was greeting our guests, I was handed a jacket and asked for a cup of tea and a cup of coffee. So, I dutifully put the coat on the hanger, and I sat down, but there was a look of shock and horror when the man realised that I was actually chairing the meeting. I was able to manage the situation by showing the individual that I had the knowledge and the technical ability to be able to converse with him and with every man in the room as well. Being the only female in the room is quite daunting, but you have to balance not being submissive in any way whilst being respectful of the culture. It was quite tough back in 2006, but every year since I’ve been to India, it’s changing, I can see the difference. I have also been working in the Middle East and had similar experiences years ago. I wasn’t always treated with respect but now I have got great contacts there through showing that as a woman and as a person, I have a lot to bring to the table. Whilst I realise we have a way to go here, I really do empathise with women in other countries struggling with inequality. I’m glad to see it is changing but there’s a long, long way to go for women out there.


Which country out of the ones you have worked in do you think has been the most progressive in terms of their equality? 

I would say I was really pleasantly surprised when I worked in Jordan, we had a team there in my last company. It was fabulous to see the difference from when I joined the company in 2012 until I left just last year, in terms of the number of women versus men that worked in that lab. I’m glad to say that it’s now 50/50 in terms of men and women. Before I moved on from the company, I was involved in the recruitment of a female General Manager, which was just fabulous to see. We need to just focus on that change and present it to the world and that to me was a fantastic achievement. Those women did it using their own ability and with their own technical knowledge. They proved their position in the laboratory, which is fabulous.


Do you ever suffer from self-doubt? If so, how do you manage that? 

Always. Even now, doing an interview to speak for women out there, it’s just a daunting prospect. But actually, I think the way I overcome this is to realise everybody has self-doubt, both males and females. I think the number one fear for a lot of people is to do public speaking and not many people are completely comfortable in that environment. I suppose my advice is to live your life, don’t be afraid to speak your mind and be a part of the human race. To be able to participate in improving the world is a fabulous thing. It’s certainly not easy and I’m sure no matter what level you’re at, you will always have moments of self-doubt.


What would you say the main challenges are for women in the pharma industry? 

“I do believe it’s down to society not always judging women and men equally when it comes to balancing work as well as life.”

I think it depends on where you are globally. It’s great to see that about 65% of the health care industry is taken up by women, but unfortunately it is only something like 25% in leadership roles. I think there’s still only one CEO of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies that’s female. So that’s really the disappointing thing and it’s not down to women not being educated or having the experience, but something is happening there and we need to support women to get into leadership roles and onwards into C suite roles. I do believe it’s down to society not always judging women and men equally when it comes to balancing work as well as life. I think that’s what we need to do to support women through every industry, not just the pharmaceutical industry. When you think back though, in Ireland in the 1930s/40s women weren’t allowed to work if they got married, for example. So I just think to myself, over the last 50, 60, 70 years, women are only really now going into the workforce. I just think if we can do what we have already in 50 years, what can we do in the next 50 years? Really, that’s food for thought for any woman out there. Yes, we’ve gone through very difficult times, but now is the time to just ‘push for progress’.


What is the best advice you’ve received? 

I loved it when Christine Lagarde – who was the MD of the IMF – said, ‘grit your teeth and smile’. As a very senior woman, she’s an inspiration to me. Sometimes you just have to grin and bear it and just know that change is coming, and it is coming, it really is. That was the best bit of advice I have heard.  


Are there any other women that have inspired you? 

There are women right through history even from the ancient Egyptian times when Hatshepsut portrayed herself as a male to become a pharaoh right through to Greta Thunberg who is a very tenacious, very strong female, just like my daughter. Kathleen Johnson is another woman who inspired me. She passed away last year at 101 years of age, she worked through stigma – race as well as gender – when she became a mathematician at NASA. At a time when women weren’t even allowed to put their names on the reports, she was able to in the end. I am sure you’ve heard it from everybody, but I have to mention Marie Curie. She didn’t come from a very wealthy background, but she pushed for education and also had two daughters. She had a supportive husband who really pushed for her to get the credibility that she deserved in 1903 to be the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. I say to every woman, if you have a partner, they need to support you. To me Marie Curie was groundbreaking; my own mother benefited from radiotherapy at the end of her life to ease a little pain. That brings me on to my mother. She was a great inspiration to me in my lifetime, she worked through her education while balancing life, four children as well as a husband. She ended up getting three degrees, we always used to call her ‘The Three Degrees’. She was a brilliant woman and she had an inspirational father in my grandfather. He used to sit me down and talk me through my math homework and he treated everyone equally and that passed on to my mother and onwards to me. I hope I’ve done the same with my own daughter. I’m also teaching my son to do the same and respect women and to treat them equally. My mum is the most inspirational woman to me, there is no doubt about it.  


What do you think is the best way to encourage more women to work towards senior executive-level positions? 

I think it’s really around getting society to change and to realise that men and women can both bring equal and in fact, quite different diverse properties into the business environment as well. It’s been proven that a gender-equal business is more profitable, and it’s not only more profitable, it’s more ethical as well. I do believe that society in general needs to accept that men and women equally have to balance their family life with their careers. It’s really about getting that support and we actually do need to realise that men need to be part of that.


What advice would you give to a woman looking to progress into an executive level? 

I will quote Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. I loved her book, Lean In, and the advice she gave women, ‘don’t be afraid to sit at the table and be heard’. Yes, listen, but don’t be afraid to be heard and sit at the table.


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.