Woman in business, achieving greatness, driven to succeed.
Drive, ambition, motivation. For high-performing women in the workforce, these words can often be construed as negative, even dirty. And god forbid you have an opinion or stand up for yourself, thus you be labelled aggressive, moody, or a bitch. Sarah Hutcheon has had to expertly tackle all these obstacles throughout her career as one of the top sales representatives for a multinational pharmaceutical company.
I’ve known Sarah since the tender days of our early 20s, where fluro headbands and multi-coloured eyeshadow were the height of clubbing fashion. Even then, I looked up to her as someone who was exceptionally driven, who knew what she wanted out of life, as I floated along aimlessly trying to find inspiration for mine.
Sarah had a strong sense, even as a kid, of what she wanted out of life, of the lifestyle she wanted to live. Not one for the quiet family setting, Sarah was driven to achieve success, to enjoy the finer things in life, and has made no apologies for pursuing her desires.
A low-key brainiac, Sarah took her love of science and combined that with a Masters in Business, quickly working her way up the sales ladder thanks to her determination and fire-cracker personality, to become one of the youngest sales executives in the company before the age of 30.
Usually on the road as an Oncology Territory Manager, Sarah has been adjusting to life at home. Which was the perfect opportunity to chat to her about her career path and motivation, dealing with sexism and gender roles in the workplace, and stepping away from the societal norm with her decision not to have children.
Sarah Hutcheon is…
A Melbourne girl. I used to say girl, but I guess now I say woman. I say Melbourne because I think it’s something I’m quite connected to. I’m quite connected to my roots and where I come from. So Sarah Hutcheon, is a Melbourne woman who is a wife, is a sister, is a daughter, is a woman in the pharmaceutical industry. I think they’re sort of the titles I probably identify with most.
What do you do and when did you decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
I’m an Oncology Territory Manager. I work for a large global company called Eli Lilly, which is a pharmaceutical organisation that does their own research and development.
I kind of found my way into pharmaceuticals. I always loved science and I also always loved business. I actually originally started off with a psychology major at Melbourne Uni, and thought I was going to be a psychologist. But I got to my final year and realised I just was not prepared to be a healthcare professional. I knew I didn’t want to go into the clinical setting.
I was at this crossroads because I knew I wanted to go and do a postgraduate study. So I actually applied for the Masters in Business, and also the Masters in Audiology, and got into both. It was quite scary because if I went and did the masters of audiology, I would be an audiologist and it was a very clearly defined career.
Whereas in the masters of business, it was a lot less defined. You really opened yourself up to any element of the business field and you had to make it your own path. Family members said to me, with your personality, business will probably open up more doors for you. And that was that, I made the decision to do the Masters in Business.
One of my professors was a pharmaceutical manager by trade, and he came up to me, this is no joke, he came up to me on the first day of one of the classes and said to me, you need to go into pharmaceuticals. With your psychology background and now your business masters, you will do amazing. And that was that.
So I’ve pursued a career in pharmaceuticals and worked across all elements, from prescription generics in pharmacy, to GP drugs, to hospital only drugs. Also marketing, I was a brand manager, and now I’ve sort of landed specifically in oncology drugs.
Yeah, amazing. I remember years and years ago, when we were hanging out a lot, always looking up to you as someone who just seemed to know what you wanted to do. It seemed like you really had your shit together. I’d love to know about the journey in pharmaceuticals, what your career path looked like, and how you found that journey to be as well?
Yeah, I think you’re right. A lot of people said that about me from a young age, I just knew exactly what I wanted. And even though it has its twists and turns, I think for me, I always, from a very young age, knew what kind of lifestyle I wanted.
If you want certain things in life your job is going to need to facilitate that, and I think that was a big driver for me towards pharmaceuticals.
Were you even aware that a role like that was an option before then?
No, I didn’t. I mean, as a kid, you wouldn’t know what the pharmaceutical industry is. And then you think of the scientists making drugs, but you don’t think about the whole commercial element that goes behind marketing and selling drugs, which is where I now work.
I think you need to know yourself, and that would be my advice to people trying to find their path – know yourself and what kind of life you want, because the most unhappy people I know in their thirties are those who made certain choices in their careers, but then their careers don’t deliver on the kind of life that they want to have.
For me, as superficial as it sounds, I always knew I wanted certain things out of my lifestyle. So that drove me to seek out any industry that fit with my interests, that could give me the life I wanted.
From my perspective, it might’ve felt like forever for you, but it seems like you progressed pretty quickly through the sales ranks. Besides lifestyle, what were your motivations and tactics behind moving up and what was driving you to want to keep progressing?
It’s a really good question, and it’s one that I reflect on a lot. I did all my education – my bachelor’s and my master’s – before I entered the workforce. So I was able to progress really rapidly from my twenties to my early thirties. And the driving force – I loved being the youngest person to achieve a certain title.
One thing I’ll never forget was a particular promotion, to brand manager. I was already in the organisation, but I had to interview for the position. There were three other candidates who were in their mid-forties to mid-fifties. I would say I was 24, 25. And I think that’s what spurred me on.
I knew I couldn’t change my level of experience, that’s something one applies over your lifetime, but what I can make up for there was my drive and my energy. And that’s something that I’ve always used. I’ve got the energy and I’ve got the drive to make whatever the role requires a success.
It’s something that I’ve always used in every interview scenario. I’ve got the energy and I am able to commit in a way that maybe someone with five kids can’t. You want me to go to Sydney tomorrow? I can go to Sydney tomorrow.
So I think you need tools to be able to sell and market yourself. And women are encouraged not to do that because they want you to be the nice girl.
I was actually going to ask about gender. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like pharma would be quite a male-dominated space. What has being a young, attractive woman in that environment been like? Have you found that challenging, and if so, what have you done to overcome it?
It’s funny that you mention that, cause it absolutely is. Even now as a 35-year-old woman, people are always trying to understand how old i am. I get comments like, “You don’t have kids, but you’re married”. You know, they’re trying to piece it all together.
I can give you one example where I had a colleague who was at the same level, but he was in his late sixties. I don’t think he was trying to be nasty but he mentioned to another colleague that I had been successful because I had the “easier” hospitals, even though they were pre-assigned before I got the role.
And I remember I was seething at first. I thought, you are reducing my success, because he felt inferior that I was doing quite well.
I’m sure you can now look back at it and you’re like, this has nothing to do with me. He’s completely projecting his own insecurity.
Yeah, and I pulled him up on it.
I thought I could be upset and angry and pissed off. But one thing I get called more often than not, is aggressive.
And I’m sure a man would be called assertive! It’s that patriarchal bullshit that we’ve been trying to live with for centuries, that if you are a confident, assertive, talented woman, especially in the business world, you’re aggressive. Whereas they are confident, they’re a brilliant leader or whatever. For women historically, it’s this negative reference.
No manager that I ever really looked up to, male and female, ever called me that. That was something a colleague on my level would call me, because of their own insecurity.
One thing that I did struggle with most in my career and growing up was that everyone wants girls to be nice. They want us to be agreeable. I’m not saying you need to be rude, but if you don’t agree, say why you don’t agree politely and stand firm in it. I know so many of my friends who say something happens in the workplace, and I say, did you say anything? No, I didn’t, I didn’t have the confidence to. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. I want people to like me.
But in not challenging and showing up for yourself, you’re actually not only honouring yourself, you are proving to other people that you don’t deserve what you’ve achieved.
And I think the moment you do stand up for yourself, you’re saying to the other person that you’re in control. I think the greatest compliment I’ve ever received from a manager, she said, “It doesn’t matter what the situation is, you are always in control”. And I was really proud of that. She didn’t say you’re aggressive or, you know, I’ve had people say to me, you’re too direct. People get frightened by your directness.
I know I’ve been undermined in meetings before and I haven’t stood up for myself, no one generally does.
Yeah, it’s easy to have someone be rude to you in a boardroom. And then you leave the meeting and you go to your friend who was in the meeting and say, “Oh, that person was so rude to me. I didn’t like that”. When what you should have done is when the person shut you down, you very politely say, what do you mean by that? You don’t have to carry on and have an argument, but you can say, I don’t agree with that because of X, Y, and Z.
I think where women get labeled bitchy or rogue or psycho, all those words they love to call us, is when we make a statement and then we don’t provide the evidence for why we’re making the statement. I think I’ve always had the greatest success, in really challenging situations where someone is completely disagreeing with me, by using this strategy.
What would you say you’re probably most proud of in your career so far? What are some highlight moments for you?
I think the proudest moment was getting that office and it had my name on the door, at a young age. As someone in their twenties, I beat out candidates who were in their forties, and then to have my name on the door, to have admin staff that supported me, I think for me, was the greatest achievement. To sit around a boardroom, where everyone was a minimum of 12 years my senior, was a really proud moment for me.
You should be very proud of that! Normally your work day-to-day would involve going into visiting oncology doctors hospitals. These are pretty serious drugs for people in pretty dire situations – how do you look after yourself and your mental health when you’re constantly exposed to that sort of content?
You’re right. I’ll never forget one of my first days in this new role, I walked into the Alfred Hospital and it really took me aback. Breast cancer can affect you from a very young age, unlike certain other cancers, and I was waiting in an area where patients were coming in for their appointments, and this woman came in and she looked exactly my age. She’d obviously been going through chemotherapy and had lost her hair.
The turban she had on was by a brand that I also had clothing from, I could see the logo. I thought, there’s a woman my age going through cancer. And for some reason it really hit me hard.
I think for me, the way I get through all of that is that I always put everything in perspective. So if I have a bad day and the meeting didn’t go according to plan, or I didn’t meet a certain target, I remember that I saw a woman, who is my age, wearing the same brand that I wear, to cover her head where she’d lost her hair. Whatever I’m going through is insignificant compared to that. That there are people going through much worse than what I’m going through.
I mean, it still doesn’t mean you can’t have shit days.
No, exactly. It’s the little things that I do to help as well – I’ll come home and walk Albert (Sarah’s dog), just putting on sneakers and going to the park with him makes me feel grounded in the very essence of what it is to be human, which is just to be with your family, be with the people you love and be out in nature is so important.
Having a pet can ground you in so many ways. I think for me that helps alleviate a lot of tension and stress that can be accumulated in a work day.
As I said before, you always looked like you knew what you wanted out of your life, including, and something that now resonates with me, not having children and not following that societal standard of what a life as a woman should necessarily look like. Is this something you’ve always known and what did that path look like for you?
Yeah, it’s a big question. It’s one that I always have internally with myself and I have with my husband. Tom and I met at a very young age. I was only 18 when I met him and he was 19. We fell in love and knew we were going to be together, and wanted to make a life with each other. We both agreed pretty quickly that children and a family lifestyle did not feel right. It was incongruent with who we were as people. It was just not part of the essence of who we were.
The amount of grief I get! Strangers think there is something wrong with you, family members think you’re selfish and that you are missing the very meaning of life by not wanting to have children.
But I think the one thing that makes me feel resolute in my decision is those that really know me – the people that really know me and know what I enjoy about life, and know how much I love working full time. It’s not that a child or children wouldn’t fit who I am, or not that I wouldn’t be a good parent or I don’t love children. I do. I just don’t want them in my house!
That speaks volumes to knowing who you are.
Yeah, I think so many of us try and fit into what’s expected of us, as opposed to actually living the life we want and being who we actually are. And that doesn’t always mean being a parent.
I feel like I need to justify myself as to why. But why am I having to justify myself? Have you found it hard with your parents? Was that something that they took a long time to be ok with?
I think my mother, more so, thought for a long time that I would change my mind. It was something that was a maturity thing and I’m just not ready. Since I was about 20, Tom and I always said we don’t want kids. Everyone ignores you when you’re in your twenties, like they do to most people in their twenties, when they make bold statements about what kind of life they want, for whatever reason.
Once we got married, that’s when they really started asking us the question. My husband sometimes works 80 hour weeks, I do a 50 hour week. So who’s giving up their life that they love and they enjoy to be with this child? I have to give people an estimate of what my week looks like to understand.
But yes they’re actually very supportive in that they say it as long as the two of you are happy then they are.
In this very weird time, what’s making you happy at the moment? What are you, what are you doing to keep yourself on this path?
I definitely struggled. I remember I was at the Alfred Hospital when my boss called me to tell me in March, you’re going to come off the road. And I remember arguing with her and saying, I don’t want to come off. I’ve got meetings in Tasmanian in two weeks’ time! I said, okay, I’ll come off the road for two weeks ‘til we figure out what’s going on with this whole COVID situation, thinking I was going to be on a plane in two weeks’ time for my meetings.
The nature of my role is that I plan my year out. I’ve got meetings booked up for the year. So mentally I struggled to watch what I had planned out be decimated, essentially, meetings with 50 doctors at a hospital gone.
I used to go to the gym four to five times a week. Can’t go to the gym. You can go for a run, but it’s not really the same. So it’s been really tough. I’m doing a lot of short courses online.
How many languages can you speak now?
Exactly! I went from talking to 20 people a day, when I was working out in the field, to now being stuck just talking to my dog and my husband. I was starting to go a bit mad.
I’m doing really random courses, such as making food out of sequins! The hobbies are getting more and more obscure! And I’ve gotten into fragrance, like random, obscure French fragrances and understanding all the different notes that go in. From fragrance and sculpture to macroeconomics!