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The role of women in science and technology

Why the lack of female leaders in pharma and life sciences is a problem that still needs to be fixed

Women in science

This year, 11 February marked the fifth UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is a great initiative that aims to both recognise the role of women in science and technology and to promote their greater participation around the globe.

Its very existence serves to highlight that the lack of gender diversity in science professions is not confined to the UK. We face a global equality problem at a time when the world must meet unprecedented challenges.

Science is at the forefront of humanity’s response to existential crises like climate change, technological disruption and, with specific relevance to pharma, the emergence of new diseases and treatment of chronic diseases with unmet clinical need.

The COVID-19 crisis has captured global news headlines like few other stories can. As humans farm more animals, gather in bigger cities, travel and heat our planet, new diseases and epidemics have become more common.

Put simply, if science is to help us tackle these crises then it can’t be deprived of the potential of thousands of women who choose to pursue careers in other sectors.

And any discipline that’s too dominated by one gender will find itself more easily trapped in paradigms that impede its progress.The need to boost female participation isn’t equality for equality’s sake. It is mission critical.

Diagnosis

All of this isn’t to say that we haven’t made progress, especially in the UK. Recent legislation designed at tackling gender inequality – not
just in terms of representation but also pay and remuneration – has helped to shine a light on issues in many industry sectors.

More often than not, a poor Gender Pay Gap (GPG) isn’t evidence of unequal pay practice, although it can be, but of an imbalance of men and women in the highest paying roles at the top of organisations.

In effect, we now know what the problem is – or at least, there’s greater transparency around the data. But what can we do to solve it?

We’ve known for a long time that there’s a lack of young women embarking on careers in science and tech. In fact, there’s still a dearth of young girls opting to take STEM subjects beyond GCSE level.

Companies with poor representation have long pointed to this reality as the root cause of their gender imbalance. The proactive ones that are determined to help fix things try to do their bit through school outreach work and lobbying to help tackle the issues around science education.

Looking at the challenge from the bottom-up, this makes sense and is much needed. If girls aren’t engaged, then STEM topics won’t be pursued and the flow of talent into the industry is cut off at the source.

But can we fix the lack of engagement just through STEM outreach work or through initiatives within the curriculum to make these topics more appealing?

I’d argue that we can’t, because it just considers the issue from one perspective and it assumes that girls are discouraged from taking science because there’s an issue with the way it’s taught. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a field that’s been so male dominated for so long is taught in such a way that it appeals to or favours boys over girls.

We pick our paths through education as children because we see an end route which is realistic or, in some cases, because we’ve been inspired to be something. In this sense, girls need to have role models in science that they can emulate.

Of course, this makes STEM outreach incredibly worthwhile. The visibility of successful female leaders within STEM ambassador programmes is vital. This takes us back to what the GPG data tells us – that there is a lack of female representation in the boardroom of pharma businesses.

Top-down thinking

Businesses in the science sector need to also address the shortage of female leadership. Does this become a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario – a vicious cycle in which we blame the lack of girls looking for STEM careers on the paucity of role models, and the paucity of role models on the lack of girls embarking on STEM careers?

This seems to be the situation we find ourselves in now. But there is an imbalance between the effort being applied through the education system and what’s being done in the boardroom.

This isn’t to say I believe the science sector has a problem with sexism or even unconscious bias, although I’m sure it exists in pockets as it does everywhere else, sadly. However, I don’t think it’s as prevalent as it is in other industries with a heavy male bias. My biggest advocates during my professional life have been male colleagues.

From my observations, the solutions are myriad but there are three areas in which the science sector should focus its efforts. The first is the family and the way it has too often placed the brakes on a woman’s career trajectory when she’s been expected to fulfil ‘traditional’ (read outdated) roles.

Pharma companies should encourage the most progressive parental leave policies they can so that male and female colleagues can share it equally. Too often, a talented woman’s progression up the career ladder is halted by prolonged periods of absence after having or adopting children. Ensuring it’s no longer just seen as the woman’s sacrifice will play a big part in levelling the playing field.

Similarly, flexible working practices that allow colleagues to fit careers around family life means they won’t have to make a choice between one or the other.

Fortunately, both the legislation and technology exist to make both an easy reality. Culturally, the mainstream corporate world has embraced both, including pharma, which means that it can market itself as an attractive place for people looking to raise a family.

Secondly, recruitment practices and processes can be adapted to remove risk of any potential bias, unconscious or otherwise. Ensuring gender diversity on the selection panel and ‘blinded’ CV reviews are an easy fix.

Thinking more deeply, businesses should consider the value they place on relevant experience over years served and open up the recruitment of non-executive directors.

The third area is support for female entrepreneurs – or for entrepreneurs in general, for that matter. We need to encourage, nurture and fund more start-ups but also allow them to flourish in the industry’s middle tier.

Too often, bright ideas are snapped up by big pharma before start-ups have had time to go it alone. While this creates an unhealthy imbalance in the sector’s business ecosystem, it also conceals a cohort of potentially inspiring female founders and entrepreneurs inside the machinery of big pharma.

Heroes everywhere

Finally, when we have women leaders, we need to give them the biggest platform possible. And it’s not as if we don’t have a wealth of talent here in the UK that we can shout about already. I’m proud to be able to list a roll call of inspiring women here at Alderley Park, which is part of Bruntwood SciTech’s UK network of innovation districts.

Take Tiffany Daniels-Thorn, founder of BiVictriX Theraputics, an early stage start-up that’s just secured $1.75m in funding to develop a new class of cancer drugs. Or Ruth Roberts, who is co-founder of Apconix, a company that tests toxicology in newly developed drugs and that’s applying new AI tools to its work.

She left a career in big pharma behind to go it alone five years ago. Then there’s Victoria Savage, head of biology at the Antimicrobial Resistance Centre, which is the UK’s only dedicated R&D facility for this critically important field of work.

Girls and young women need to be able to see people like Tiffany, Ruth and Victoria, hear their stories and understand how they got to where they are today. To the extent that I support positive discrimination in any area at all, it would be in giving a disproportionate focus to the activities of women in science, at least until we have an equal balance of leaders.

With a new government offering vocal and possibly increased financial support to UK science, the spotlight is shining firmly on its future potential. It can only realise this, however, with an increased role for women at all levels.

My sincere hope is that in exploring how funding and policy tweaks can better support areas like R&D, the government and industry can examine how it can better support female leadership too.

A future generation of role models might help us to finally crack the challenge of gender inequality, break the vicious cycle we find ourselves in and bring a new wave of diverse thinking and creativity into the sector at a time when it is helping us all face unprecedented challenges.

Kath Mackay is managing director at Alderley Park

26th March 2020

Kath Mackay is managing director at Alderley Park

26th March 2020

From: Research

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