International Women’s Day 2021: Choose to Focus on What’s Really Important

Carole Huntsman, Head, Sanofi Genzyme North America and U.S. Country Lead, reflects on the need to challenge the status quo and choose what is truly important on International Women’s Day and every day.

On February 29, 2020, the U.S. marked what it then believed was its first COVID-19 death in Washington state.  By March 6, my role changed dramatically.  As Head, Sanofi Genzyme North America and U.S. Country Lead, my focus is on Dupixent and key specialty care products for Multiple Sclerosis, Rare Disease, Rare Blood Disorders, Oncology, and Rheumatology in the U.S. and Canada.  That day, we activated the internal U.S. Crisis Committee on COVID-19.  Ever since, the U.S. leaders of the global Business Units as well as all of the functional leaders for the U.S. have been meeting regularly, finding ways to support U.S. employees while ensuring continuity of manufacturing, our research and development programs, distribution of our medicines and all functional activities in order to ensure access to life-impacting medications and our over-the-counter consumer healthcare products for patients and consumers.  During this last year, we have seen the very best from our Sanofi employees, especially those who had to report to the manufacturing sites, the R&D facilities and the distribution centers – but also those who worked long hours at home.  We have seen them demonstrate an amazing level of commitment on a daily basis, working tirelessly to create new ways of working and interacting with patients, providers and customers. 

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge.  The pandemic has put an incredible strain on women in the workplace, with many facing impossible choices between work and personal responsibilities.  I feel this deeply on a personal level.  I know what it’s like to be a single mother with a career that I value.  I saw people on my team faced with personal and professional challenges that no one could have anticipated.  Many of the parents on my team found themselves thrust into the roles of teacher, caregiver, and employee all at once, trying to be all things to all people. Others have been isolated from their family and friends.  There is no question that every person on our team has been faced with different, challenging situations that have altered our previous “normal.”

As a mom and a leader, I understand the need to juggle priorities firsthand.  I have found that by keeping the big picture in mind, things eventually fall into place.  My best advice is to know what your priorities are.  It is not possible to do everything perfectly, there will always be trade-offs.  You need to accept them, work around them, and keep pursuing your goals.  When we strive for perfection in all parts of life, we can lose sight of what’s important.  Don’t have time to bake cookies?  Those store-bought brownies will be just fine.  Spending time having fun with your family or doing something that is more important to them might need to take priority.  Is your house a mess?  Getting enough sleep and taking care of yourself might need to take priority.  Use a background when doing a call over Zoom or Teams and get to it when you can.  Don’t be too hard on yourself or take yourself too seriously.

Throughout the pandemic, I have been grateful for our Sanofi leadership who have stressed the need for flexibility and understanding, and I expect that to continue long after we return to the office.  Taking care of patients is always at the core of everything that we do at Sanofi.  But during this pandemic, taking care of ourselves and our families needed to be prioritized as well.  We left no stone unturned in developing and providing options to our employees – from mental health support and stress relief to childcare and education.  Work/life balance or shall we say integration will never look the same as it was pre-pandemic and I think that is a good thing – particularly for women.  I have to admit that I for one, have certainly enjoyed seeing our team members’ little ones interrupt a meeting to ask for help with a math problem or if he or she could have a snack!

I always advise those I mentor, both women and men, that a career is a marathon, not a 50-yard dash.  There are times we slow down our careers for our personal lives and other times when we progress our careers rapidly.  One must make decisions that consider their whole life and are right at a specific time. You’ll know what’s right when the time comes – you’ll feel it in your heart. 

Looking toward the future, my Choose to Challenge for other women is to challenge the status quo and choose what’s really important.  Reach for positions where women have had more difficulty going, such as operational leadership roles or profit & loss (P&L) roles.  Women have made progress over the years – and, while we don’t want to be hasty, and we want to do things the right way, can we accelerate our progress? This is an important conversation and one that should continue within Sanofi.