RegMedNet asks ‘how can STEM tackle the gender imbalance?’

Written by Alexander Marshall

For International Women’s Day (8 March 2020), RegMedNet has asked three high-profile female leaders, from different areas of the regenerative medicine field, what needs to be done to address the gender imbalance.

Biology has a problem with representation. Despite a high proportion of females entering the field, worryingly few manage to make it to the upper echelons of organizations. This International Women’s Day (8 March 2020), we’ve talked to three high-profile female STEM professionals to get their perspective on how the field needs to adapt. We asked each of our experts how they thought STEM needed to reform to encourage more diversity and each had an interestingly different perspective.

The first person I sat down with was Elizabeth Schwarzbach. Elizabeth is Chief Business Officer at the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF; NY, USA) and, equipped with her PhD in pharmacology and an extensive career in drug development, oversees the various collaborations and partnerships which make NYSCF so influential in the field. With Elizabeth beingincredibly easy to talk to and so well informed, it was a delight to hear her views on the industry.

NYSCF released their Gender Report Card White Paper in 2019 and outlined various methods that the field should take to correct the gender imbalance, and Elizabeth is a passionate advocate for reform. She tells me how the report extensively outlines various measures that institutions could put into place relatively easily, such as hiring an extra pair of hands during maternity cover to ensure work doesn’t stall, or simply allowing a second individual to travel alongside a conference participant to ensure they can have appropriate childcare.

“NYSCF, with the input, help, and the collaboration of leaders across the stem cell field — both male and female — created this initiative for women in science and engineering. The goal of that was to not have just another white paper that would sit on the shelf that talked about this gender inequality, but one that would actually provide actionable strategies to address the gender imbalance.”

In our interview, she takes great time to explain how the key issue isn’t the money spent though, and that many of the provisions suggested in the paper could be implemented with no real cost. Simple actions like “just stating that there can be unconscious biases that can affect decision making forces you to think about that before making a decision” and can have a significant impact.

She also touches on the distribution of females within the industry, suggesting they need to be much more involved in the financial future of the field.

“I think one of the key surprising factors to me was that even in groups where there are women, they’re not necessarily on things like tenure committees where financial decisions are being made. I think that’s one key area where we can improve. If you have a representative group making decisions, the outcome of those decisions will look more much more representative of the fruit you’re making them for.”

The second person I sat down with was Tiffany Facile. Tiffany has worked as a healthcare professional for 17 years, but she now oversees the transition of clinical trials into plausible therapies as Research Development Partner at Sanford Health (SD, USA). A nurse by background, Tiffany is naturally friendly and a pleasure to talk to, but she is willing to acknowledge that she can’t be sure whether the issues she’s faced are due to her gender or because of her different start in the field.

Ironically, nursing and healthcare provision are key aspects of the STEM field and are central to the conversion of theoretical therapies to treatments with real patient impacts. I personally find the possibility suggested by Tiffany that her start as a nurse (a field which has a disproportionately high number of women that many believe could lead to underappreciation for the job) may be the source of any issues is just as troubling as if she had started through traditional routes.

Despite her years of experience, it transpires she can often feel frustrated, as if her voice is not always heard and given the weight it deserves.

“I would say, without making things too political and too messy, that we need to really allow women entering this field to have their voice be heard, but not because they’re a female, but because they’re intelligent, they’re honest, and so forth. We just have to be led by character and not by co-founding factors that you can’t change.”

Finally, I was able to talk with Rebecca Lim, Associate Professor at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). Rebecca sits on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM; ON, Canada), is involved in clinical trials utilizing amniotic stem cells and is a scientific leader for RegMedNet.

The first thing I think anybody will notice about Rebecca upon meeting her is her infectious energy and passion. This passion comes across in everything she discusses, from her work to how the field needs to develop, and she is incredibly eager to see the gender imbalance addressed, even if that requires reform on an institutional scale.

“We need to start making institutional decisions to place a woman at the helm, having HR policies that ensure that women can return part-time from maternity leave should they wish to, and ensuring that conferences have a good gender balance before agreeing to speak.”

But she doesn’t think that addressing the gender imbalance is something for other people to do, emphasizing that we should be asking what in our daily lives we can do to uplift other women and encourage them to progress up the career ladder.

“See that fellow colleague who rushed into work half an hour late because her toddler didn’t sleep all night? She is looking frazzled because she has a lab presentation due in 10 mins. This is not the time to tell her to chill. Instead offer to upload her talk for her, get her a cup of coffee or help her by greeting people entering the room. Tell them how excited you are to hear your colleague speak. And then sit in her direct line of sight and nod enthusiastically when she delivers her talk.

Maybe you got invited to speak at an event but can’t make it? Suggest a female colleague who needs the exposure, and then take the time to get her ready for the speaking gig.

Why not take up the opportunity to be part of a conference or seminar organizing committee and ensure gender balance in the committee as well as the speakers list.“

Thank you to Tiffany Facile, Rebbecca Lim and Elizabeth Schwarzbach for talking to RegMedNet during Phacilitate Leaders World and World Stem Cell Summit 2020 and for offering their personal insight into the issue.

Phacilitate (London, UK) are firm advocates of gender parity, and even offered a Women In Stem luncheon during the World Stem Cell Summit 2020 to enable women to form networks in a world that can often feel like a boys’ club. Phacilitate also run mentoring programmes for women in advanced therapies, to help women expedite their careers.

Keep an eye out for the full interviews from our three experts on RegMedNet soon.