Women in science: Sofia Baig on breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling and strong team culture

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

Women in science: Sofia Baig on breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling

Related tags Women in Science Clinical development Research Precision medicine Patient centricity

Sofia Baig is the president of clinical solutions at Precision for Medicine. As a strategic industry leader, she is adept driving organizational change and delivering top- and bottom-line growth.

An expert in customer account management and global clinical development operations, she is also responsible for delivering transformational change. OSP was delighted to speak to her about her life in science. 

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I’m the president of clinical solutions at Precision for Medicine. I lead a team of clinical development professionals that support all aspects of clinical trial execution from protocol design through clinical study report and beyond. Our works spans across all phases of clinical trials, primarily in the oncology and rare disease area.

At the highest level, my job is to create high-performing teams marching towards a common goal. This often involves being laser focused on having the right people in the right jobs, establishing a strong team culture, and empowering others to collaborate and produce their best results. In my experience, even if you have fantastic systems and processes but lack the right people, it's very difficult to drive your organization forward. Conversely, suboptimal systems and processes can be overcome with good people. I’ve had to tell incredibly talented individuals that if they can’t work within a team, as a team, they aren’t going to be a fit at my organization.

When did you realize you were interested in science, as a young child, teen or older?

From a very young age, I think even as far back as when I was five years old, I wanted to be a doctor. My parents are from Pakistan. When I was growing up, the only career opportunities available for women in my culture were medicine or teaching. The field of medicine appealed to me because I’ve always wanted to help people.

Could you describe your personal journey bringing us to where you are now?

I really entered this field through happenstance. At university, I decided to study my favorite science, Chemistry. After a summer job in the lab, I realized going in and doing the same thing day in and day out was not for me. After graduating, I was considering becoming an accountant when I received a call from a recruiter regarding a job at a pharmaceutical company. I remember my father saying, “just go for the interview while you're figuring out whether you want to be an accountant.”

My parents drove me to the interview, and when we arrived, I said I would be back in an hour. Three hours later, I came out with HR, and found my parents were sitting in the reception area with their slippers on, worried because I said I’d just be an hour. I was so embarrassed and remember thinking, “Well that settles it. I will definitely not get the job now.” When we got home, the phone rang, and I was offered the job.

Admittedly, I never imagined this would be my life-long career. I had no idea of the depth and breadth of opportunities in clinical research until I fell into this field. Fortunately, I had wanted to become a doctor to help people, and now, 34 years in, I help people every day, and I haven’t looked back.

What challenges did you face (as a woman or otherwise) along the way and what is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

If there was one challenge that has stuck with me in my career, it would be breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling. To be honest, I was totally naïve and believed that your hard work and results will always be sufficient to progress in your career.

When I hit the glass ceiling, I didn’t even recognize it for what it was. I instantly assumed that my lack of progression was related to my performance or lack of experience, even though on the surface of it, I was delivering everything that I was being asked by my leadership. It took two years of ‘being in the wilderness’ - soul searching and getting guidance from trusted colleagues that allowed me to understand that the rules of the game had changed. I finally realized that what got me here isn't necessarily what's going to continue to take me forward. In a nutshell, at more senior levels, results alone are not sufficient. Advancement relies on your relationships, how well you work with your colleagues, and how you show up as a leader. If it were not for all the help and guidance I received from colleagues and mentors at this critical stage of my career, it would have definitely stalled my progression.

What ignites your passion in your current role?

It's the people. People are at the heart of everything we do. As I mentioned earlier, when you get that piece right, everything else falls into place.

I am in the most fortunate position to have a job that truly makes a difference in people's lives — in helping patients, their families, and their loved ones. It isn't often you can say that your job has a direct impact on people's lives, so for me, that is a daily privilege.

Paying it forward as a diverse individual is also something I am deeply passionate about. Studies have shown that being a woman, ethnic and short (and yes, I am short) can negatively impact how your executive presence is perceived, which unfortunately, can impact your career advancement in corporate America. As an outwardly religious Muslim woman, I had a fourth strike against me as I was seeking an executive role. I want to make sure my experiences can help other women understand how the rules of the game change and what they can do to strengthen their leadership presence much earlier in their careers to help propel them forward. I try to help and support diverse talent earlier in their careers so that they are better equipped to advance more quickly, smoothly and beyond my level.

What is your current work ethos/style?

I am an authentic leader – I often say ‘what you see is what you get’ when I describe myself. Authenticity is a critical leadership quality – I call it the ‘magic ingredients’ that accentuates all your other leadership traits. As a leader, being genuine and transparent allows you to gain trust and build positive relationships with others. I have been fortunate to have traveled across the globe and engaged with many different cultures as part of my job. Through my experiences, I have learned that authenticity is a universal language that people understand regardless of their culture or experience. Also, by staying true to who I am, I am giving others permission to be who they are – this often brings the best out of people. 

I also consider myself to be a pragmatist. My practical, logical, common-sense approach has allowed me to cut through a lot of organizational barriers and bring speedy solutions that drive organizational performance. I am a self-proclaimed ‘Dr. of Common Sense’ and must admit, I am often surprised by how uncommon common sense is.

Could you share some advice for young women starting to develop an interest in science or wanting to pursue a career like yours?

If you are interested in science and not sure exactly what you want to pursue as a career. I would recommend exploring clinical research. The depth and breadth of careers available in drug development are astounding, and there are options for all sorts of skills and personality types. It is also a field that has a high number of women prevalent, and these women are progressing to the highest levels within their organizations. I can also safely say, as a mother of four children, that you can be productive both at home and at work. You certainly do not need to give up critical life choices for the sake of your career. Last but not least, a career in clinical research allows you to have a direct impact on people’s lives daily – there is nothing more meaningful or rewarding in my humble opinion.

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