Women in STEM: challenges and opportunities

women life sciences

In this article to celebrate International Women’s Day, we asked women in STEM for their comments on the challenges they have faced in their careers so far, and how solutions can emerge from these challenges.

We get advice from Fiona McLaughlin, CSO, Avacta Therapeutics; Maureen Coleman, chairman, CN Bio; Debora Lucarelli, CEO, Enhanc3D Genomics; Tamsin Mansley, president, Optibrium Inc. and global head of application science, Optibrium; Sheelagh Frame, CSO, Ubiquigent, and Anne Phelan, chief scientific officer, BenevolentAI.

They give us their expert observations on the challenges they have faced in their career so far, and what can be done to overcome issues relating to women in STEM.

Fiona McLaughlin, CSO, Avacta Therapeutics

I fundamentally believe that you will succeed or fail in your career based on your achievements and decisions. As a woman in STEM, I do not feel that I have personally faced challenges specific to my gender, however as I move up the corporate ladder it is evident that there are less females than males. The figures for the gender pay gap in the pharma sector in the UK suggest that it is at least 10.4% (Global Data). 

We also need to address the reasons that there are many more females than males in the lower-paid jobs than in the top quartile of biotech/pharma jobs.

I have two children, and it is extremely important to me that they grow up to know that mums can work full time as well as dads and that they are proud of the work that both their mum and dad do. I do not feel that having my children held up my career, and the ability to juggle priorities is likely of benefit to my career. There are now more organizations set up to support entrepreneurial women through career progression, and networking with women in industries both inside and outside STEM is highly recommended.

Maureen Coleman, chairman, CN Bio

Early in my career I had the good fortune to work at Glaxo which, in the pharmaceutical science area, had strong female representation in the laboratories. As I did not have a PhD, many companies would not consider me for a role within R&D. Fortunately, Glaxo operated a more flexible approach and offered me a job. I think it is essential that we keep an open mind when we specify our recruitment criteria – what behaviors and experience are truly needed – not just paper qualifications.

During my time at the company, I took maternity leave to have my first child. I later learned that they did not expect me to return to work and had given my job away. Upon reiterating that I did intend to return to my job, I was instead offered a new role setting up a new unit and was interviewing people at home nursing a 3 month old for my return after five months. As a result of this, it was noted by my HR colleagues that the company had little or no return to work policies and no support in place. Thankfully, we were able to work towards installing a return-to-work framework that would prevent this situation from happening again, reinforcing the need to have these measures in place to ensure equal representation and equality in the workplace.

As I progressed through my career, I noticed that there were fewer and fewer women in the more senior roles. In fact, at one event I attended for top 250 managers, there was only one table of 10 women present. Nevertheless, I persevered into more senior roles, moving from role to role to gain experience. I had support from above from one or two senior male managers who helped to nurture my career, which was very useful.

Much later, I learned that my “less disciplined,“ “emotional,” and “challenging” approach meant I was not offered an important promotion, as they felt I might not fit comfortably (for them?) into their leadership team (of all white males).despite having around a 60:40 balance in the organization below them to lead and manage. I moved sideways within the company to try something else that allowed me to advance further.

Many women – including myself for many years – suffer from imposter syndrome – and often underplay their personal contributions and achievements by attributing them to team work and colleagues. We need to encourage women to be proud of and articulate their achievements as clearly as men do.

Debora Lucarelli, CEO, Enhanc3D Genomics

I decided to be a scientist when I was 16 (in secondary school) – my chemistry teacher was inspirational, and I looked forward to every lesson. I have always been a curious person and felt that subjects, like chemistry, biology and physics can bring some structure and explanation to all natural phenomena and the “mysteries of life.”

I started my chemistry degree when I was 18 at Rome University “La Sapienza.” The first days were really striking and clearly defined my future: science is a life-defining decision. My undergraduate study consisted of intense lessons, much lab practice and competitive exams but all within a friendly, stimulating and collaborative environment. Perhaps most important was the expectation that one day I would be part of the next generation of scientists.

As I progressed through my career as a PhD student, postdoctoral researcher and scientist in biotech, alongside leading teams in academic and commercial settings, I have always felt that commitment is not enough – time and perseverance are equally as important. I was determined not to be defined by my personal life decisions and that required me to develop effective time management, make “brave” decisions and develop resilience to non-constructive feedback. I decided to forget about stereotypes and was prepared to restart when events took unexpected turns.

Women have a lot of decisions to make during their career but so do all individuals. Being in a supportive environment does have a part to play but I believe that ultimately career decisions sit with the individual.

Tamsin Mansley, president, Optibrium Inc

I’ve always been fortunate to have a family that has supported my education and career, and this has helped me to succeed in a role that I love. I recognize that I have not experienced most of the challenges that many women contend with just to pursue a career in a STEM field. Overall, I don’t believe being a woman in STEM has held me back in my career. However, I’ve always felt an unwritten (real or imagined) pressure to try harder, do more and put myself forward, just to keep up.

There are two areas that I think it’s vital we address as a STEM community if we are to support women in STEM professions.

First, we need to encourage girls into the field by helping them to imagine themselves in STEM careers. Nurturing a love of science at an early age through engaging education strategies during their school years will encourage more girls to consider careers in STEM and life sciences. I support this through my role on the board of trustees of my daughters’ school. Role models help too; when young people see others like themselves (gender, race, socio-economic background) being successful in a role it encourages them to enter the field too. STEM careers often require a significant investment in time and education before the scientist is professionally qualified. Making this training and education more accessible and achievable will open doors for young women.

Another other area that needs more attention is providing support for young parents. Even today it’s not unusual for women to leave the workforce when they have children, and this is one reason there are relatively few women in senior STEM roles. When I had my children, I chose not to take a career break. It was tough. We had no extended family support network, and this is not uncommon today in our global culture. I used to mentally beat myself up (I still do!) about being a ‘bad’ mother, especially when I saw other young parents. However, when my children reached school age, I saw how difficult it was for my friends to rejoin the workforce. While my career had moved forwards, theirs had stagnated or had to be reinvented in a different field. Helping women to balance family and career will keep more women in STEM and provide opportunities for them to advance their careers.

Sheelagh Frame, CSO, Ubiquigent

I have always regarded my gender to be irrelevant to my chosen career. Perhaps I am one of the lucky ones who has seen hard work and dedication translate to a position of responsibility in a stimulating work environment. However, my STEM career has not been without its challenges.

I used to believe that celebrating women in science was rather patronizing — as if our accomplishments needed to be measured on a different scale — but I have since come to realize that these accomplishments need to be recognized, as they are not as common as they ought to be and are often achieved against the odds.

Like many of my female colleagues, I frequently wrestle with the well-documented imposter syndrome; women are much less likely to put themselves forward for a promotion, negotiate salary, or volunteer to lead projects than our male counterparts. Addressing this lack of self-confidence and self-assuredness in women should remain a priority.

There have been one or two occasions where my gender did become relevant, and disadvantageous — involving inappropriate advances, comments, and language from colleagues. And although the incidents were swiftly dealt with, and with confidence and conviction on my part, they did (thankfully, only temporarily) impact my belief at being taken seriously in my role as a scientist.

One of the hardest challenges I have faced have centered around hormonal challenges and attempting to maintain a high standard of work whilst struggling with the effects of hormone imbalances and the associated symptoms. And then there is pregnancy and motherhood, and all the challenges that come with it; a deeply personal life event, which can leave you overcompensating in the workplace to show that you are no less dedicated to your career.

We should also consider the emotional and logistical challenges of supporting elderly relatives, a responsibility that most often falls to women, particularly when the NHS and social care sectors are so stretched.

There are support systems in place in some work environments, but the stigma surrounding these topics is still enough to discourage women from feeling able to be open about their experiences. Employers should endeavor to provide a culture where women both have access to the support they need, and feel comfortable and safe enough in their roles to utilize it. 

Anne Phelan, chief scientific officer, BenevolentAI

At first glance, it seems that the life sciences industry is ahead of the game when it comes to equality.

Certainly, when you look at our early talent pipeline, where women make up 67% of junior level roles, we are miles in front of sectors such as engineering. Attracting women into life sciences isn’t, however, the problem: the real issue lies in getting them up the ladder. Despite women representing over half of the inbound talent pool, women make up just 29% of the C-suite.

Clearly, something needs fixing.

You could argue that with so many women entering the industry, the tide will inevitably begin to turn at the top. But people, myself included, haven’t got the patience to wait two generations for that to happen. In an industry such as ours, where the success of our output is measured in the lives that have been saved or transformed by the innovations we create, it is a colossal failure that we are wasting such a valuable talent resource. We must clear the barriers to women’s progress, and advance women into leadership positions where they can make the greatest contributions to the life sciences.

Balancing act

One obvious challenge is that women in STEM are more likely to be the primary care-givers for young children and aging family members. Balancing work and career responsibilities is challenging for all working parents, and even more so for those in single-parent scenarios. In my experience, even with the support of my partner, this took a lot of hard work and sacrifice: when my children were young, I often found myself working late into the night at home so I could spend precious hours with my kids between nursery pickup and bedtime. While many companies have introduced mechanisms such as parental leave, part-time policies, and travel-reducing technologies, we could still do more to ensure bright, highly-motivated women stay the course. 

For example, today, younger workers have a strong desire for parental equity in organizational culture, policies and procedures. Companies are in a great position to capitalize on this and in doing so, enable men to share caring duties and support women to return to work faster or with more hours.

Cultural issues such as bias and stereotypes further limit opportunity for women. Consultancy firm McKinsey found that managers — male and female — frequently dismissed viable female candidates on the false assumption that they wouldn’t be able to balance work with family obligations. Women are further stymied by the ‘proof versus potential’ problem, whereby they are consistently — and incorrectly — judged as having less leadership potential than their male counterparts. The cyclical nature of this problem creates a sort of unconscious bias, so that when there are not enough women in the top jobs, we as a society find it difficult to believe that women have what it takes to become leaders.

Avoiding being patronizing

This is not an easy problem to fix. As a leader, I have often found myself walking a tightrope of wanting everything to be fair and equal, while also not patronizing women through positive discrimination. While it is important to judge people based on their skills and capabilities rather than their gender, we also need to be vigilant about providing an environment where women are recognised, championed, supported and mentored up through the ranks. 

Reflecting on my own journey, two of my biggest opportunities when I was at Pfizer were given to me by senior women who advocated on my behalf. So, if you are in a position to be a mentor or sponsor — take it. One of the greatest and most rewarding things in life is seeing people succeed and knowing that you helped them realize that potential.

When women are presented with the widest possible range of inclusive and empowering role models, who can reflect their own experiences back to them, it helps them to imagine a place for themselves in leadership and in the industry at large. At BenevolentAI, I see a world where my team has a rich diversity in every respect: nationality, gender, personality, experience – you name it. BenevolentAI is particularly rare in that it has achieved an equal gender split across both its senior leadership and global team. I continue to benefit from interactions with this diverse team, including our CEO, Joanna Shields, from whom I can draw confidence, support and inspiration in continuing to shape my own path.

Open to learning

Whilst some of my most influential role models happen to be women, there are characteristics that I admire in all sorts of leaders, regardless of gender. More than 20 years ago, someone shared with me that for every person they work with, they try to take one element of their personality and be more like it. This advice stuck with me, and ever since I have tried to weave traits from people I work with into my own approach to life. You can find the skills you need in many places, as long as you’re open to learning: it’s about finding the elements you admire and building your own playbook of capabilities.

We cannot underestimate the importance of having diverse role models at every level. To put it into perspective, eight years ago, my then 10-year-old daughter was asked to draw a scientist, a hairdresser and an astronaut. Of a class of 30, only two of the children drew a female scientist. Children accept diversity at face value and learn by what and who they see. As such, we need to ensure they are exposed to the widest possible range of inclusive and empowering role models.

Leaders in our industry — both male and female — have to be visible, lead by example, dismiss myths of what can and cannot be achieved and foster an environment of opportunity. Be it on International Women’s Day, or any other day, we should be thinking about how we can help clear challenges to women’s progress, because ultimately, leadership is about setting new standards and aspirations for those that are following in our footsteps.

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