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Women in Science: Perspectives From Industry

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Despite women making significant contributions to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) throughout history, a gender gap remains, with women working in these fields being underrepresented, and often, underpaid and overlooked. In recent years, considerable efforts have been made to address the reasons for this disparity and help more women and girls to pursue and progress careers in STEMM.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was established by the United Nations in 2015, as part of its initiative to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls. Since then, the achievements and roles of women and girls in science are recognized annually on February 11, and actions that can be taken to further promote gender equality are highlighted.

In honor of International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022, Technology Networks interviewed three women who have built successful careers within the scientific industry, to learn about their career paths and the reasons they chose to work in industry. In this interview, we also discuss some of the hurdles that women can face when pursuing a career in science and whether the difficulties vary between academia and industry.

Anna MacDonald (AM): What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Fiona McLaughlin (FM): From school age I had a strong connection with biological sciences and knew that this was the career path that I wanted to follow. I had an inspirational biology teacher who really nurtured my passion for science.

Jennifer Harbottle (JH): Quite simply, chance, curiosity, grit and opportunity. I have always followed my interests, kept an open mind to new directions, and given drive and commitment to the projects and work that I undertake. Whether it be the obsession with anything entomology related as a child (I have always been quite systematic and dedicated in my approach!), the active encouragement of a (reputedly difficult) physics and chemistry teacher at school, or validation of my scientific merit during my MSc and PhD, I owe a lot to my parents and the mentors who have actively supported and guided me along the way.

A career in science is never stagnant and continuously challenges me ‒ I love the fast-paced atmosphere, the thrill of research and new discoveries, the constant innovation, and the complex and riveting discussions amongst equally enthused colleagues.

It is a privilege to enjoy my vocation. It takes a team and a whole community of scientists to truly push the boundaries of science and develop effective strategies to benefit humankind ‒ being a part of this is truly humbling and rewarding.

Louise Madden (LM): In my early education I followed a very scientific pathway, studying mathematics, chemistry, and physics at A-Level. When choosing what to study at university there was very little career guidance at the time as to what opportunities were open to me with these qualifications, other than a teaching career. At the time I chose to study Law & Accountancy at university, which had a well-defined career path. It wasn’t until some 11 years after graduating and having worked at KPMG, that I started to work in the scientific industry and was drawn to it from my earlier interest in science.

AM: Can you tell us more about your current role and your career path to this point?

I am currently the CSO for a tumor microenvironment targeted oncology biotech, Avacta. We have a clinical stage asset which is in a Phase I trial in the UK and will shortly be in clinical studies in the US also. We are working with the top oncology physicians in the UK, building out the trial and also increasing our understanding of the pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic aspects of our drug, so that we really understand how the drug works, and therefore how we utilize the drug going forward. Building collaborations is key to success, as a small biotech we cannot do everything on our own, but we have to choose our partners carefully to make sure that our relationship is mutually beneficial.

LM: Leaving KPMG I took up the role of finance director at a small scientific instrument manufacturer in Manchester, UK. Working in an SME gives you the opportunity to work outside your field of expertise and gain knowledge and hands on experience of other functions within a business. This led me to move to Sweden to take on the role of global service and support manager at another scientific instrumentation manufacturer, before returning to the UK to take up roles of commercial director, chief operating officer and eventually chief executive officer, again in scientific instrumentation manufacturing companies. In my current role as CEO of H.E.L Group, I have responsibility for operations in UK, Europe, North America, China, Singapore and India.

JH: Although much of my work started in the field of nutrition, my PhD exposed me to the world of molecular biology, and I was engrossed by the intricacies involved in gene editing or generating reporter cell lines, and the limitations of the techniques I was using ‒ my meticulous nature wanted to fix this! A couple of weeks after my PhD viva, I moved to Oxford, UK and joined Oxford Genetics Ltd (now OXGENE) to help set up their new Gene Editing department. It was a rollercoaster ride and truly pushed both my scientific and personal development to a level that I could never have anticipated or imagined. Aside from being the lead scientist on a multi-million-pound project and contributing to the development and management of a high-throughput platform for the generation of isogenic knockout cell lines using CRISPR-Cas9, I worked in the lab on my own R&D projects involving CRISPR knock in and base editing strategies to model a drug resistance point mutation in lung cancer.

Base editing technology was still in its infancy (mid-2018) but I was hooked and read anything I could find pertaining to base editors, and wrote a piece highlighting the technology and its growing potential in therapeutic applications. It was only natural that I jumped to Horizon when the Company announced their collaboration with Rutgers University to onboard their novel base editing technology. I joined the small team in Cambridge, UK as a senior scientist in May 2019 and it has been a journey of constant learning and development since then, all the way from fundamental evaluation of the technology through to the growth of a large department of great scientists working on both the technical advancement of the technology as well as its application in cell and gene therapies.

AM: What drew you to work in industry, rather than academia?

FM: I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to be Glasgow University’s first industrial placement student and I spent a fantastic year working at what was ICI Pharmaceuticals at Alderley Edge, UK. At the end of that year, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in industry, working in drug development. But I also realized that having a PhD was the best route forward into this career path. I went back to Glasgow, UK to finish my degree in Biochemistry with a very driven attitude, and obtained a first-class degree, which set me up well for my PhD at Cambridge, UK. 

JH: Deciding whether to work in industry versus academia can be a difficult decision. However, for me, I joined a company immediately after my PhD ‒ it was exciting from day one and I have never looked back.

I am drawn by the speed of development, the focus on tangible outcomes, the use of state-of-the-art sophisticated tools and techniques, the team spirit and opportunities to interact with a wide range of departments and mindsets involved in the science but also commercial, IP and business.

I am fortunate to have always held an R&D type role, allowing me to rapidly develop both my technical and soft skillset while also indulging in the science, exploring novel strategies to address current bottlenecks or solve unmet clinical needs. I strongly believe in the technology that we are developing at Horizon ‒ it’s inspiring and highly motivating to work within a collaborative team that strives to see its actual progress to the clinic and make a real difference to human health.

AM: What do you believe are the greatest hurdles that women face when pursuing a career in STEMM? Are the challenges the same for industry and academia?

LM: In all the scientific companies I have worked in they have been male dominated with respect to the split of employees. The roles that women do take up in such companies are normally focused in HR, administration and finance.

So having visible role models in all areas of a business, is vital for women to see the options open to them, especially within industry. Ensuring also that benefits around maternity leave and flexible working are in place, which allow for a work-life balance without sacrificing career options, is essential.

JH: Women may be faced with a hostile and competitive environment where they feel outnumbered, undermined, or their voice not heard, leading to low self-esteem and less confidence to stand up for what they represent. In this scenario, where they are numerically disadvantaged, women typically experience greater performance pressure as they are more visible and perceived as representing women more generally. Suddenly, the pressure of representing their social group, their gender, can be immense and incredibly intimidating.

Overt sexual harassment still occurs in some institutions, and this should be called out immediately, but more widespread and insidious are the derogatory, insensitive, and disparaging comments that may infiltrate the workplace’s day-to-day language. As a coping social strategy, even other women may be drawn in to speak with a similar language to “fit in”, especially using humor at their own expense, only encouraging a gender stereotype that should not exist.

The structures of industry or academic institutions are often still based on prior cultural and social norms that have women expected to tend to most, if not all, domestic responsibilities and childcare. Huge efforts are being made to address these long-standing norms, and I am lucky to be in such a company, but I think there is still a way to go in the industry to both acknowledge existing issues and ultimately drive the change that is needed.

It can be daunting for women to navigate these interpersonal and structural challenges, feeling they should be “super women” and do it all, or make constant sacrifices which may be outwardly criticized whichever way they choose.

FM: I don’t believe that there are hurdles for women in STEMM, you will succeed or fail based on your achievements and the decisions that you make. We are in an industry where the majority of the projects that we work on are high risk and will fail, that is the reality of drug development. Being male or female does not alter that reality.

AM: For women who are just beginning their careers in STEMM, what skills would you encourage them to develop to help them on their journey?

LM: I found that I developed skills by observing and working with those in more senior positions who inspired me. This allowed me to cultivate soft skills around such things as communication, problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking and decision making.

FM: Listen to the people in your team, most problems can be solved if you get to them early enough, letting problems grow from molehills to mountains causes most issues. Be brave enough to deal with issues and nip them in the bud.

JH: I think this is relevant to all budding scientists, and even more so to minority groups, I encourage them to develop a strong network and to not isolate themselves. Stand up for your work and for what you stand for, don’t let yourself be side-lined for being a woman (or any other minority). Actively engage in activities that excite you ‒ it doesn’t matter if this is stereotypically a male-dominated field. Women may be under-represented in a classroom or other environment but focus on the women who are present and the courage and resilience it’s taken them to be there. Embrace fellow “pioneers” and in acknowledging and supporting each other, you will indirectly inspire others. Reach out to women who inspire you and ask them about their experiences, many will be glad to help and encourage the next generation!

AM: How can we inspire the next generation of women in STEMM and help them to progress their careers?

JH: I strongly believe in leading and inspiring others by example. Provide mentors and role models, to guide and encourage from a young age through to early career. Acknowledge the attributes and strength of women in science without distinguishing women from men as this draws attention to and upholds gender differences. Regardless of gender (and more widely, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), we should respect each other as individuals and the contributions to science, working collaboratively across all areas to drive innovation and progress together.

Industry and academia alike can create and maintain an environment supportive of women and ALL people by continuously assessing and improving their structure and work system by hearing the needs of students and staff.

Are promotions, salary and career progression biased towards a specific group of people? Does the workplace support a suitable work-life balance and incorporate a level of flexibility?

It is important to continuously inspire, engage with, and mentor the next generation of creative minds and innovators ‒ sometimes all it takes is a little confidence and belief in someone to allow them to rise to the challenge, especially in our scientific world of “imposter syndrome”.

FM: Lead by example, be role models. Never think “I can’t do that”, just show that you can!

Dr. Jennifer Harbottle is a senior scientist at Horizon Discovery, a PerkinElmer company.

Louise Madden is chief executive officer at H.E.L Group.

Dr. Fiona McLaughlin is chief scientific officer of Avacta’s Therapeutics Division.

Jennifer Harbottle, Louise Madden and Fiona McLaughlin were speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.