How to encourage more women in life science jobs

women students science

In this article to celebrate International Women’s Day, we asked six women biotech professionals for their observations on women in the life sciences industry.

We spoke to Sheelagh Frame, CSO, Ubiquigent; Debora Lucarelli, CEO, Enhanc3D Genomics; Charli Batley, COO, Phoremost; Tamsin Mansley, president, Optibrium Inc. and global head of application science, Optibrium; Maureen Coleman, chairman, CN Bio; and Fiona McLaughlin, CSO, Avacta Therapeutics, for their observations on how to encourage more women to pursue careers in life sciences.

Sheelagh Frame, CSO, Ubiquigent

It is important for young women and girls to have role models: seeing successful women in influential positions at life science and biotech companies will encourage them to enter the field.

There has been some progress in recent years – a survey in 2018 showed that when asked to draw a scientist, more children than ever before drew women, rather than a stereotypical old man. It is great to see such a positive change in children’s preconceptions, but there is still a long way to go until science is viewed as a gender balanced industry.

Over recent years, I have been involved in the submission of many grant applications. These submissions often include extensive written pieces, alongside slide decks and supporting data, not to mention the rigorous interview processes and multiple lengthy presentations applicants must deliver. Several of these projects have had submission deadlines falling either within or directly after school holidays, a time where many parents, especially single mothers like myself, find themselves needing to juggle childcare alongside a demanding workload. By evenly distributing these deadlines throughout the year, the grant organizers would be enabling mothers, and indeed parents in general, to balance work and childcare responsibilities and to focus completely on the task at hand, in turn providing them with every opportunity to submit a compelling application.

While many companies now have great employee benefits to support parents, including extended maternity and paternity leave, family health insurance policies and ‘keep in touch’ schemes for mothers returning to work, there is still more that could be done to support those who have taken a career break to be a stay at home parent. Many recruiters would still frown upon a gap on a CV, and consider it a disadvantage against other candidates with a complete career history. It is important that we provide additional support to mothers returning to the workforce, ensuring that they have access to any resources they may require.

Tamsin Mansley, president, Optibrium Inc.

Companies can do many things to accommodate working mothers – flexible hours, maternity and shared parental leave schemes will attract new hires. I’m encouraged to see some of the changes that are occurring even since I had my daughters, such as quiet spaces for nursing mothers. It needs to be part of the culture, too. For example, I have appreciated knowing that my supervisor trusts that I will get my job done even if I must take a break to run my daughter to her orthodontist appointment.

It hasn’t been unusual for me to be working in a mostly male environment and feel under pressure to fit in as ‘one of the lads’. Occasionally I’ve experienced situations where men in my network have made inappropriate advances, gestures or comments. Having a system with zero tolerance of harassment and discrimination: clear disciplinary policies and unbiased confidential reporting systems will benefit all victims of workplace harassment and discrimination.

The importance of mentoring cannot be understated. A mentor is a trusted member of your network who shares their experience to help you be successful, not for their personal gain, but because you have everything to gain. I have benefitted from many mentors during my career, both formally and informally. I also enjoy the company of other women in my network and sharing our experiences. By mentoring young women and providing networking opportunities we can help them develop professionally. Many jobs are never advertised and are filled through network connections.

We can also develop recruitment practices that encourage women to join the life science field or stay in life sciences. For example, when I am recruiting I deliberately exclude a list of qualifications and skills from the job description because it’s been shown that women are less likely to apply than men if they don’t ‘tick all the boxes’. Different words also appeal to men or women. Balancing these words in company descriptions and recruitment postings encourages a wider pool of applicants to imagine themselves working with you.

Finally, upskilling opportunities support career growth, not only for fresh graduates but those looking to move into the field from established careers, or after career breaks. This also benefits the employer, especially if it encourages a great employee to stay in the STEM workforce.

Maureen Coleman, chairman, CN Bio

Whilst I am not a proponent of setting quotas or positive discrimination, I do think targets can be a useful tool in some respects. It is imperative that we encourage diversity (of approach) in our recruitment and promotion processes and, as such, I always challenge lists that do not show diversity such as gender or ethnicity. 

At one stage in CN Bio’s growth, we had the unusual position of having a female chairman, CEO and scientific founder. It is important that women in senior positions take a stance on this to ensure diverse representation is encouraged at all levels across their department or company.

A recent survey conducted by PIR International on executive remuneration in the biotech sector shed light on the lack of diversity in executive teams and board in the biotech sector. In many sectors, businesses are now opting to pursue a campaign called the ‘30% club’, which I feel could help to ensure diverse representation at all levels. By encouraging at least 30% female representation in board and c-suite positions, I believe that this structure would cascade down into executive positions and consequently reenforce diversity throughout the organization.

Another great initiative currently aiming to increase female representation in our industry is led by The Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences, who run special workshops and sessions where a range of scientists visit schools and universities to explain the types of roles and opportunities available. My own passion for science was formed as a child visiting my uncle’s pharmacy, where I was shown how various ointments and lotions were made and how they worked.

By demonstrating to children the broad career potential across life sciences, I believe we can encourage more to develop and pursue passions for science, and ultimately lead to more equal representation across all demographics. For this reason, I definitely support ‘bring your daughters to work’ day and hope we encourage this across all companies I chair.

Debora Lucarelli, CEO, Enhanc3D Genomics

I believe that more can be done at each step of an individual’s career for scientists to remain true to their decisions – at every stage in life. For instance, people may choose to do science because they are particularly gifted at school, but this does not mean that others should disregard science as an option. Teaching science is not easy. Teachers and students should be supported at very early stages. Science allows people to explore careers in multiple disciplines, not only in the more traditional laboratory and academic routes but also in policy making, business and technology.

Postgraduate study can be intense and has the added pressure of funding to consider – ensuring sufficient funding, in addition to adequate resources and supervision, could help improve the quality of people’s lives and work.

When people think about their future they may concerned about competitive and limited career opportunities and financial implications as well as work/life balance – these are areas that can be significantly improved with funding schemes and a general review of career schemes.

Some people are very happy doing creative and new research while others have exceptional skills at translating science for instance. Having a more organic and inclusive academic-industry network might create more opportunities and offer a more comprehensive set of options for people to consider when thinking about the future.

Fiona McLaughlin, CSO, Avacta Therapeutics

Early experience of life science careers is a huge benefit. I am a strong advocate of providing training for students coming through university and we currently provide opportunities for short and longer-term work experience for science students and apprentices. If a 20 year old student can see a female CSO/CEO/COO in situ, then that sends a powerful message that there should not be any barriers for them working their way up to the top of the ladder.

Don’t be afraid to challenge and be challenged by your colleagues. Working with people who think differently to you is a positive, take it as an opportunity for growth!

Charli Batley, COO, Phoremost

Women are still more likely to be caregivers and so greater flexibility is often required to allow them to fully take part in working life. With this in mind, providing benefits such as the ability to buy additional annual leave could encourage more people to apply, in addition to placing a greater emphasis on culture and wellbeing.

The UK Government are keen to get more people over 50 back into work, and we as an industry could support this by ensuring additional considerations and policies are taken into account – for example, around menopause. This could encourage older women into life sciences related professions – it’s never too late!

Explore other topics: AvactaUbiquigent

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