How to promote diversity in STEM

BIO-Europe Spring, Element Materials Technology, Ergomed, Rentschler Biosciences

Leaders from OMass Therapeutics, SiSaf and Brainomix explain how to promote diversity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

OMass Therapeutics is a female-led business with diversity at its core. It was founded by the pioneering scientist and Oxford Professor Dame Carol Robinson and is led by the experienced biotech and pharma executive Ros Deegan. It also has a board of directors that is 50% female, well above national and international averages. The company is an example of gender diversity in the workplace.

“Diversity balance starts with being aware of the mix in the company and proactively striving for the most effective balance,” said OMass CEO Ros Deegan. 

“But it isn’t about prioritizing women, it is about starting your recruitment process with a diverse pool of candidates to allow for the selection of the best person for the role, which in turn, can improve the diversity of the team. Sometimes the best hire into a team might be someone with a more analytical mindset, or someone with high energy, sometimes the best hire into a team might be a man or a woman, provided that they also bring the other attributes required by the role.”

However, hiring female scientists in male dominated fields, such as chemistry, is an ongoing challenge for the company. 

“When I joined the company, whilst women were well represented on the board, I discovered that we had only one female lab scientist among a team of about 10 men.  And for the next couple of hires, we identified two additional male employees as the best candidates – because we were interviewing predominantly men,” Deegan said.

The split across disciplines can vary greatly, however. In 2020, OMass acquired a small pharmacology CRO that became the company’s in-house pharmacology team – interestingly, the company was majority female, which pointed to a difference in the hiring pool in pharmacology disciplines. 

“This pharmacology team was almost entirely female in about the same ratio as our previous male-dominated team. So, we then had a pretty good ratio of male to female employees as a whole company, but we were highly segregated! Which was still a problem,” she said.

Improving and promoting diversity and inclusion across its teams has benefitted the company’s innovation culture.

Ensuring diversity has to start with encouraging more girls to study STEM

“Recognizing we will always need to have an eye on gender diversity and inclusion, OMass has set objectives to promote gender balance across teams and the company. To inform this we also conduct yearly performance and pay reviews to eliminate potential biases, including differences across gender and other metrics,” Deegan added.

“But ensuring diversity has to start with education and opportunity. To encourage more girls to study STEM subjects, improve diversity and nurture the next generation of female scientists, OMass is also partaking in multiple initiatives,” said Deegan, who is a mentor for younger scientists coming through, including the Creative Destruction Labs in Oxford and the FastFutures programs.

Encouraging diversity in STEM via role models at an early age

Melissa Strange, the CFO at the UK’s leading techbio company Brainomix, also highlights the need to highlight female role models in leadership positions at AI-businesses, like Mira Murati, the CTO at OpenAI (the company behind ChatGPT).

Brainomix is an AI-powered medical imaging business, with Strange herself having followed a career in law, accounting and business management before moving into biotech.

“As well as encouraging girls and women into the more traditional sciences, with the growing importance of AI and machine learning within drug discovery and development, we need to make sure we are also actively encouraging girls to get more involved in subjects such as math, computing and robotics,” she said.

Brainomix’s chair is Professor Jacqueline Hunter, who has had more than 30 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, including at GSK and BenevolentAI, where she helped pioneer using AI to drive innovation in pharmaceutical R&D.

Across the company, female representation is over 30%, but the gender split within the engineering team (including software development, algorithm research and support/maintenance) drops down to closer to 15%. “This is an area we actively look to address,” Strange said.

“Highlighting role models at an earlier age is key” she says. Lego has managed to successfully attract more girls to their toys though developing model kits which appeal more to girls (albeit we need to be careful not to gender stereotype toys!), and I would welcome similar efforts within robotics kits and others such as Meccano.”

Times have changed

Suzanne Saffie-Siebert, CEO of U.K. RNA therapeutics and delivery company, SiSaf, also notes how times have changed for women in leadership roles.

“In board meetings at the company where I worked 25 years ago, I was the only woman. And when I entered the room, all the male executives would rise from their seats. It made me so uncomfortable that I always tried to be in the boardroom before anyone else. Today, my male colleagues no longer treat me as a different species but as their leader.”

Ensuring equality

Fiona du Monceau, COO of ExeVir, said: “Having two X chromosomes gives women the edge: The X chromosome has many genes relating to the immune system, making women less susceptible to infectious diseases. But the flip side is a greater tendency to develop autoimmunity: around 80% of individuals with autoimmune diseases are women.”

She said the powerful double X means women are generally healthier and live longer than men, but they often have less access to education and healthcare. And women are also more likely to quit their job, or reduce their hours, to become a caregiver, often unpaid, to family members or friends who have become patients with chronic illnesses.

These include the immunocompromised who are at high risk of developing severe COVID.

“In developed countries, about 3% of women are immuno-compromised. Do you know more than 33 women? One of them is probably immuno-compromised,” du Monceau said.

“This large group, with often invisible illnesses, includes women with solid organ transplants, are under active chemotherapy, are taking immune-suppressive drugs, have advanced untreated HIV, and those suffering from hematological malignancies as well as primary immune deficiencies. While vaccines protect many of us well, these women quite rightly worry about COVID-19 and the devastating impact it could have on their health, or for the loved-one they are providing with care.

“On International Women’s Day we should remind ourselves that the world has a responsibility to ensure that as science advances the most vulnerable among us secure equity in their ability to access diagnostics, and safe and efficacious treatments and preventive measures. We believe this is the right thing to do and will be beneficial for society from a health, economic, and moral, perspective.”

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