Women in STEM
The Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) campaigns provide statistics on women in the UK STEM workforce, using data from the Office for National Statistics Labour Force. Its latest data shows that women are a minority in the STEM sector workforce, making up just 24% of STEM employees in 2019.
Based on the data trends from 2009 to 2019, WISE has estimated that by 2030, women will make up 29% of the STEM workforce. Whilst there has been a greater focus on diversity and inclusion in recent years, the statistics shows that further work must be done to ensure women of all backgrounds are encouraged to pursue a career in STEM and progress to senior positions.
A diverse, balanced workforce can deliver a whole host of benefits, including providing access to a variety of different viewpoints, opinions, and experiences. This is particularly crucial in the life sciences industry as the work of most businesses in the sector impacts the global population, and therefore it makes good sense for a workforce to be reflective of this with a diverse team and board.
In conversation with ValiRx's CEO
Dr Suzy Dilly is CEO of ValiRx and an experienced entrepreneurial scientist. We spoke to Suzy to gain an insight into her pathway into STEM and find out what she thinks could be done to help women get into STEM subjects and careers.
Could you describe your academic background, and what inspired you to go into STEM?
“My original inspiration to go into the biotech world was actually when my cat died when I was around 10. The cat was only two years old, so it just didn’t make sense to me; as a child, I’d always held the belief that things die when they get too old. It was the first time I’d really come across the idea that sometimes when people or animals are ill, there just isn’t a medicine available to make them better. At this point, I said that when I grew up, I was going to be a scientist and invent drugs for diseases that didn’t have treatments available.
“To get there was actually a pretty conventional, standard academic path. My best subject at school was maths and I saw the sciences as a way to make maths useful. When I went to university, I took that one step further. I was concerned that studying chemistry would be too academic-based and lead to a teaching career, so I applied to study Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, which aligned with my ambitions to go into drug development. After completing a PhD and postdoctoral position in chemistry, I spun a company out of Warwick University which was based around my postdoctoral research. This company offered a service to find the protein binding partners of small molecule drugs through proprietary screening technology. This step took me out of academia and into the biotech industry.
“From there, I expanded across further areas of science, including biological pathways and oncology. This experience has made me more of a broad ‘scientist’ rather than a specialised ‘chemist,’ which works well in my current role at ValiRx.”
Did you encounter any barriers to working in STEM? If so, how did you overcome these?
“Early on, I didn’t really experience any barriers in respect of being a woman in STEM. It was noticeable at university that more men were in the chemistry and physical sciences subjects, and women in biological sciences, but I didn’t really encounter an expectation that women should be steered towards any one direction.
“Further down the line, I encountered some assumptions about my level of understanding or involvement, particularly during the initial stages of starting my first spin out company. As I was one woman with three male academic counterparts, people were sometimes surprised to find I was leading the company, but this misunderstanding was soon resolved.
“Over the span of my career, gender ratios on the ground in STEM have clearly improved. Whilst there is still plenty of evidence that women need more support in STEM environments, people are no longer surprised or doubtful when they see a woman in charge, which is a positive change.”
In your view, what do you think could help more women get into STEM subjects and careers, including senior roles?
“I think that role models for girls from the youngest possible age are absolutely crucial, to encourage the next generation to work in whatever field they want, regardless of societal norms. In addition, the practice of flexible working needs to be open to everyone; parental leave needs to be available to all parents, and individual companies must take responsibility for providing whatever support is needed for their own workforce.
“The pandemic has created an environment where remote working is more acceptable and this needs to continue to be built upon. It doesn’t work in all fields, and it’s certainly not the best working environment for everyone, but a recognition that different working practices suit different people is a big step forwards in terms of equality.
“I also believe it’s important to understand that equality doesn’t necessarily mean ‘everyone being given the same thing’ but that ‘everyone is given what they need to achieve the same thing’.”
Women’s health and cancer innovations
At ValiRx, our priority areas of therapeutic focus are cancer and women’s health. We identify, incubate and accelerate innovations in cancer and women’s health that have the highest potential to improve the lives of patients throughout treatment. Identifying and adopting innovation is at the core of our strategy. We ensure all development programmes are optimised and delivered efficiently and effectively by working with external partners to supplement our expertise. Only through collaboration with our external partners can we achieve our vision.