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When We Become Leaders, How Do We Lead Science Towards Gender Equity?

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The following article is an opinion piece written by Lorna Ewart. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.

A little more than a week before the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I stepped into a new role as chief scientific officer at Emulate. More than 20 years of research in therapeutic development prepared me well for the job, yet the public response to my promotion caught me off guard. After the announcement went out about my promotion, I was inundated with personal messages – many of them from young women – telling me that I had inspired them, and they wanted to be like me. I hadn’t expected that.


I hadn’t realized it yet, but with my promotion I had become a visible example of success in a field where women often face systemic prejudices. Science has a persistent gender gap that translates to fewer women in the scientific workforce, lower pay relative to male counterparts, and shorter careers. This fact isn’t lost on me as I have rarely seen other women in decision making roles. Throughout my career, I’ve drawn inspiration from women like Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Dr. Margaret Hamburg whose success highlights what’s possible if you’re resilient enough.


To now be a source of inspiration for others was a surprise, but also an honor I accepted with enthusiasm. Now in my new capacity as a scientific leader, I, like many other women in the industry, must figure out how to be the icon young women need. There are still very few female role models in the industry and when I think about my team and individuals that I work with, I want them to have someone they can look to for advice, encouragement, or inspiration.


Knowing how to do this when you have so few models to draw from can be challenging. Fortunately, my long career has afforded me some experience with leadership and has exposed me to many varied leadership styles. Based on my experience, I believe there are three focus areas that we can all work on to help close the gender gap.


Invest time in mentorship


According to a report from the United States Census Bureau in 2019, women make up roughly 48% of the country’s workforce. In STEM occupations, however, that number shrinks to just 27%. This means that even now, women in STEM are likely to be outnumbered by men in the workplace (the same is true for gender non-conforming individuals).


It’s true that through most of my career, the senior leaders have almost all been men. I remember at my first job interview after graduating, I walked in to present to the interviewers and saw that it was 100% men. That feeling can be very isolating, but I did not let it put me off the science I had come to share.


To overcome that isolation, I found strength in mentors. I’ve been lucky to have many good mentors, both male and female, who were very generous with their time and really gave me a lot of guidance. Those relationships have had a big impact on me, and I draw inspiration from them when the going gets tough.


Knowing the power of visible role models, I frequently give presentations to high school and college students about the life sciences industry. In conversations with students, I speak as a mentor, providing career guidance to both help and inspire young minds.


In my experience, mentors can make all the difference by simply investing time in their mentees and recognizing that success for each individual may not always mean staying in their current position or organization.


I try to be generous with my time, spending as much as I possibly can to connect with my team. I hold skip-level meetings, for instance, where I'm talking directly with people who are earlier in their career. I try to learn about how they're feeling and their personal goals because we're all different. And, sometimes, someone's personal goal is to get out of their current job. In the long run, I think it’s better for them and the organization to find out where they fit best so they can be successful.


I will emphasize too, that a good mentor need not be female. Many of my mentors have been male, including Emulate’s CEO, Jim Corbett, who has invested in breaking the industry norm of a male-dominated leadership team. In addition to my promotion, Corbett recently added Veronica Mankinen to the Emulate leadership team as the vice president of sales and customer success – a role with very few female counterparts in the biotech field. With the addition of me and my colleague Veronica, women make up almost two thirds of Emulate’s executive team.


Be accepting and adaptable


The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that the traditional working environment, where individuals are expected to be omnipresent in an office, is not always necessary. For women, such requirements have often been an additional hurdle to having a successful career.


Society tends to view women as natural caregivers for disabled partners, elderly relatives, or young children. They're often the ones that must give up on their career to support their partner’s career. If the pandemic has shown us anything about workplace dynamics, it’s that remote working is possible. True it’s hard to do remote work in a lab, but for a lot of other roles, I think women can still do the job they really want to do. But if we as managers don’t embrace the possibility of remote or flexible work habits, it's going to make it difficult for many women to forge a path.


Facilitate kindness and celebrate each other’s success


Doing the work of changing a system is both chronically taxing and acutely exhausting. In these times, small moments of camaraderie can go a long way towards energizing each other and fostering resilience. In my view, the more we can build an environment that encourages moments of kindness while also celebrating each other’s victories, the more collective success we can have.


My dad would coach my sister and I as young children to always be kind to people. I see some people being quite quick to knock somebody down. And for women, because we often have to really prove ourselves, I think there is extra pressure to be the best among our peers. And so, I always encourage my team to really invest in kindness and each other’s success, because ultimately, we are all out here trying our best. Kindness is the basis of who we all are as human beings.


Seeing other women succeed was a major motivation for me to find success as well. Seeing them succeed was inspirational and I know that they will have sacrificed things to achieve that success. And, honestly, I think that's true whether it's female or male.


These are the three focus areas for me as I take on a more prominent and visible role at Emulate. To be clear, fixing the gender gap is a complex task that requires addressing many systemic and intersectional challenges. But small steps can make a big difference. For me, rising to the level of chief scientific officer at Emulate was just another step forward, a chance to exert greater influence over preclinical drug discovery and ultimately improve the successful translation of therapeutics into the clinical setting. But for those around me, my success represents much, much more and that makes me feel good.

Dr. Lorna Ewart is chief scientific officer, Emulate.