Life Sciences

Merck through and through - and good in a crisis...

In her 25 years working at Merck, one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical firms, Carmen Ratchford has done everything from supply chain management and operations to running the fire department.

Interviewee: Carmen Ratchford – Associate Director, Engineering Maintenance and Utilities, Merck

A bioengineer by background, she is now in a new role acting at the interface between operations and capital expenditure, ensuring that new facilities are designed and constructed in a way that is optimal from day one.

Ratchford, who is based in Pennsylvania in the US, says there are two things she loves about her job: “First is the opportunity to work with so many talented people,” she says. “I’ve done a wide variety of roles and many of them have had that engineering interface, which is fascinating.”

She adds, “And secondly, I’m very passionate about the work we do. We make medicines, and we save lives, and that’s an inspiration for me. The work we do day-to-day is sometimes mundane, but it’s very important to focus on the outputs and the end result, which is life-changing.”

Between 2002 and 2007, Ratchford was responsible for emergency management at Merck’s site in Philadelphia, looking after hazardous materials, security and fire safety. While outside her comfort zone, she says she learned a huge amount: “It taught me valuable skills in crisis management – like what to do on the day the power went out for the entire site,” she says. “I now know how to figure those things out – let’s not let this escalate into a crisis, let’s work out where we are now, what we need to do, and who can do what to get this fixed.”

She says her engineering background has given her opportunities to work in so many areas of the business, and she now encourages her colleagues to try new things and develop as many skillsets as they can.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to recruitment, Ratchford says, is finding candidates that bring a different perspective to the team: “You might be looking to fill a role, and receive 15 engineering resumés. They have all got the same experience, and when you bring them in for interview you find that 12 of them are the same person – they have the same views, the same problem-solving methods, and the same approaches. I’m looking for more diversity of thought in my teams.”

She adds, “You are who you are and you can’t change yourself any more than you can change the colour of your eyes. But I do encourage the engineers that work for me to try something different, and to think about what they can bring to the table above and beyond their engineering skillset. I really want them to take a chance on developing additional skills and exploring new avenues.”

She says her approach to recruitment has changed over the years, since she first took on a people management role 15 years ago. Back then, Ratchford recalls having an inclination to hire candidates that were similar to herself, and whose CVs fitted neatly into the job specification she was trying to fill. Now, she tries to think a bit more laterally: “I don’t look at it as just filling position X with someone who is perfect to do position X. Now I think, how can I find someone who isn’t just good for that, but who can grow and develop into position A, or Y, or even 3. It is really liberating not to limit yourself or your company by just bringing in someone who ticks the boxes of an immediate requirement.”

There are still too few women choosing to pursue engineering as a career, she observes – in her leadership team of eight, she is one of only two females, and she has become used to being the only woman in many of the meetings she attends. She says that can be unsettling, and cause women to pause before they contribute to the discussion.

She says things are improving, but there are still too few females opting to be engineers: “What my engineering degree taught me was a way of seeing things, of solving problems, and of tackling challenges,” says Ratchford. “I struggle to see why that isn’t much more attractive to women. If you look at the population of young engineers in our company today, the balance is improving, but it’s still not getting close to a 50/50 split of males and females.”

Data from the National Science Foundation shows that just 13% of all US engineers are presently women, and in the UK, the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Diversity Programme Report 2011-2016 found that only 8% of the current engineering workforce is female – the lowest percentage in Europe. Overall, about 20% of undergraduate engineering degrees in the US are awarded to women, and from that small base, few stick around to work in the senior ranks of engineering professionals. 

Ratchford has a few tips for those looking to get on in her line of work, whether male or female: “I think an important lesson for future leaders is that the answer to more work needing to get done is not to do more work yourself. Often I see female engineers, in particular, just taking on more work, which, while admirable, is not ideal. The real key to being successful is learning how to influence others to get things done.”

And her second piece of advice? Always make a really conscious effort to understand the person you are dealing with. Ratchford says: “What has been helpful to me is that realisation that, while I may not have the same opinions as someone else, I have to accept that, for them, that’s the way they see it. I tell myself to ‘be where they are’, and see things through their eyes. That often helps me see how best to work with others and get to where I need to get to.”

Such insights have helped Ratchford work her way up through the ranks at Merck, exploring a whole raft of opportunities along the way. She says her bosses have been gender blind, and she’s never experienced any sexism; now she’d just like to see more females following in her footsteps

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