16 September 2020

Getting Women into Biotech and Keeping Them There.

By Lucy Smith By Lucy Smith

Diversity and equality bring valuable advantages to any industry – not just biotech.

Cultures with these two qualities create more positive working relationships, are more productive, appeal to a wider range of customers/clients and encourage better retention rates.

But in biotech, there’s a lack of female leaders. Only 30% of executive positions and 18% of board seats are held by women.

Working as a specialist recruiter in this space, I know these numbers aren’t a reflection on the capabilities of the women that are in leadership roles. So, where are we going wrong? How do we get more women into biotech? And how do we keep them there?

Answering these questions is no small feat. So, I turned to a biotech expert in Melissa Gammell, Vice President of Business Development at Matphil Technologies. 

Melissa has been working in the biotech industry for 27 years, following education at Boston University and Simmons University where she majored in Biology and Organic Chemistry.

Our conversation is also available as a podcast with CM Conversations. Listen now.

Getting Women into Biotech

Back when Melissa was studying, she noticed that not enough young women were getting involved in subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). She attributed this to a lack of awareness about what STEM could lead to.

It’s important to get young women into stem at an early age and explain that if you do maths, you’re not going to be stuck at a desk all day doing equations. You could be an engineer. If you do science, you could work for NASA.

We need to get girls to study what they love and show them that great opportunities are available.

Melissa also told me about how this lack of awareness isn’t limited to A-Levels students. It carries through to university. Speaking to multiple university lecturers, she has been told about how graduates have not understood the plethora of opportunities available to them in biotech.

When I graduated, I went right to the lab because that seemed like the natural progression. Over the years, I realised that this isn’t the case. There are myriad other opportunities which we don't talk about often enough.

There's sales, there's product management, there are so many other ways that you can develop a really strong career over time in biotech. It doesn’t have to be research.

Research is obviously very important. However, other roles in biotech are equally important to support research.

Just thinking about my network, there’s multiple examples of STEM graduates that have gone onto become successful businesswomen in biotech away from the lab: Eva van Pelt the Co-CEO of Eppendorf, Jena Araki the Global Director of Commercial Operations for World Precision Instruments and Tammy Starr the Vice President of Sales Europe at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

It’s these people that young women in biotech must seek as mentors, taking advantage of platforms like LinkedIn and womeninbio.org. Internships are important too, to gain experience. Melissa found this approach incredibly valuable when starting up.

Keeping Them There

It’s one thing getting women into biotech, but keeping them there is a whole new challenge.

Working in biotech for the last two decades, Melissa has often found herself in situations where she’s been the only women in the room – which can be intimidating.  

Melissa told me how it’s crucial for managers and leaders to instil confidence in their female workers.

It’s so important to reassure your female workers that they have a right to be where they are. They have the right to challenge their male colleagues, even if they are the only women in the room.

I've had the experience over the last 27 years of being the only woman in the room. I’ve found that it’s so important to contribute and be confident in what you say. Don’t take it back. Don’t apologise.

I couldn’t agree more. If you’ve been invited into a meeting room or a conversation, it’s because you have a right to be there and have your say. It’s up to our biotech leaders, male or female, to get this message across.

While being in the minority can be a challenge, Melissa said that trying to achieve a family-work balance was her biggest challenge as a female leader in biotech.

When I started having children, it presented a whole new set of challenges that I hadn't entertained because I just didn't have the experience.

You have this internal conflict of gosh, my job is important because I need to feed everybody. But my kids are important because they are humans who didn't ask to be here.

Even now, this is still my biggest challenge.

Understanding leaders are crucial to helping women cope with this challenge. Melissa told me that she’d been lucky with her managers in the past. She recalled a time when she was getting ready to go to the airport, when her son suddenly burst in crying with a bloody nose.

I called my boss, Ryan Titmus, and explained what had happened. I was quite panicked, it looked like a crime scene with blood everywhere.

He just said ‘Take a minute. Family first, what do you need to do? Do you need to get the nose looked at? Concentrate on that for now and everything else is going to be fine.

It looked okay and everything was fine, but just having that support from my manager was brilliant. He wasn't swaying me one way or another. He let me make my own decision and told me he’d support it either way.

I wound up going on the trip, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with guilt. I hadn’t chosen between a job and my child – that’s not what this is about. I was just given the opportunity and support to make the decision that worked for me and my child.

This level of opportunity and support is crucial for women who are conscious about balancing their careers and family life.

But how come it’s women that find this a struggle? Why aren’t family men expected to undergo this crisis of conscious? That question is something that society needs to think about, not just biotech leaders.

Brighter Days Ahead?

In biotech, the situation is getting better. More female leaders are coming to the forefront, acting as role models for younger generations of aspiring women.

Efforts to encourage girls to study sciences at A-level came to fruition in 2019, with female students outnumbering males for the first time ever. Other STEM subjects did remain unbalanced but are heading in the right direction.

As the situation develops, I’m looking forward to recruiting in a future where more biotech companies understand the benefits equality, allowing me to work with more female leaders like the inspirational ones we have today.

If you have something to say on this topic or would like to share your experiences of equality in biotech, please get in touch and email Lucy.Smith@lifesci-cm.com. I’d be really interested in what you have to say.

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Lucy Smith

Lucy Smith has a passion for lab equipment, sharing the latest innovations in the market with her vast network of followers. She particularly enjoys finding, discussing and sharing how the lab is evolving and what the future has in store for lab equipment.

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