Gender parity in bioanalysis: panel discussion round-up

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, Bioanalysis Zone brought together a panel of experts to discuss issues surrounding gender parity in bioanalysis. The expert panel was chaired by Michele Gunsior (Viela Bio, MD, USA) and featured Anahita Keyhani (Altasciences, QC, Canada), Stephanie Cape (Covance, WI, USA), Amy Mize (KCAS, KS, USA) and Robin Woods (Alturas Analytics, ID, USA). Bringing together perspectives from technical, management and senior leadership roles, the panel explored some of the key challenges facing women in the field. Each panelist also suggested advice and answered questions from the audience.

We hope that through having open discussions and promoting initiatives such as International Women’s Day we can inspire positive changes in the bioanalytical and STEM fields towards the future goal of gender parity. Make sure you don’t miss the full panel discussion, which is available to view on demand now.

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In this article, we summarize the discussion, with our selection of key take home messages. Our panelists also follow-up with answers to questions submitted by the audience during the discussion.

1. Recognizing a unique skillset
2. Ensuring a positive mentoring experience
3. Advice for career development
4. Encouraging female participation in STEM
5. Panel discussion Q+A follow up

Recognizing a unique skillset

All of our panelists reported extensive experience working with talented women in a wide variety of roles, ranging from chemists and technicians to project managers and senior leaders.

A recurring theme visited in this segment was the ability of women to flexibly meet the demands of the team and drive the success of collaborative projects. The panelists largely agreed that women have the versatility to step in and fill a role to ensure group success. It was also suggested that sometimes this willingness to fulfil such a wide variety of roles can be to the detriment of professional and career development.

It was also noted that women tend to be very humble and can place a large emphasis on delivery, a topic which was revisited later on in the gender parity discussion.

In the discussion, the panelists referred to a news story reporting a push to get more women on corporate boards. Indeed, in 2018, California became the first state to require publicly traded companies to have at least one woman on their board of directors. Research published in the Journal of Business Ethics reports that having a ‘critical mass’ of women present – a consistent minority rather than 1 or 2 ‘tokens’ – creates an environment where women are no longer viewed as outsiders and can enhance company innovation.

Ensuring a positive mentoring experience

After the panel discussed the broad skillset that women bring to businesses, discussion moved onto mentors for women’s career development. All of the panelists voiced positive opinions regarding the value and importance of mentors to further professional development. It was also suggested that mentors can be valuable to support personal development, helping women to find an optimum work–life balance.

One of the key points discussed for a successful mentoring relationship was communication. Understanding where you are as a mentor, as well as the professional and cultural context of your mentee can help both parties to build each other up in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Several other topics were put forward, including the importance of utilizing constructive criticism and using feedback to improve on weaknesses, as well as recognizing and building a career around your strengths.

Advice for career development

The panel began discussing the topic of advice by making suggestions for young women hoping to pursue a career in the field of bioanalysis. The take home message from this segment was the importance of engaging with not only the job at hand, but also with other individuals in different roles within the company. It was suggested that engaging with the whole company and the wider community, as well as utilizing resources, such as Bioanalysis Zone, can provide an understanding of the global vision of bioanalysis. The panelists proposed that an understanding of the bigger picture can help to transform a job in bioanalysis into a meaningful career.

When asked what advice the panelists would give to women hoping to pursue senior level roles, a common point again, was a keen focus on the job in hand. The panelists suggested that through excellence in your role, it can be possible to organically identify a need within a company. Providing solutions to address these needs can be a route to career progression.

Another one of the most discussed points with regards to pursuing senior positions was emphasizing your ambitions and communicating your successes. The panelists agreed that women need to own their ambitions and be more comfortable speaking up about their own successes. The topic of over-delivery was also revisited, with several of the panelists agreeing that women can sometimes become preoccupied with over-delivery, believing that it is necessary to know a topic 100% before being able to take the next step.

The panel agreed that it is important to recognize that you do not need to know everything and that women should not be held back by this. Rather, the focus should be shifted on to vocalizing achievements, skillsets and successes.

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Encouraging female participation in STEM

As the discussion moved onto encouraging more women into the STEM field, a transparent support system and training plan was suggested. It was also proposed that, where possible, women mentors should be matched to women mentees with similar career aspirations.

It was suggested that the next generation of women could be encouraged by a wholly transparent technical development plan. This plan should detail each level within a given organization and outline the achievements, cross training and experience necessary to get there. The panel suggested such a development plan could take the guess work out of who gets a promotion and why – which could encourage female participation.

The discussion also acknowledged one of the key factors to encourage female participation in STEM and achieve gender parity is inspiring the next generation of female scientists. All of the panelist stressed the importance of engaging the wider community, capturing the hearts and minds of young women and positively enhancing their perception of female scientists.

The importance of being ambassadors of the bioanalysis discipline was also discussed. Since knowledge and awareness are the building blocks of inspiration, the panel discussed the potential power of internship programs and the idea of developing better narratives to explain the role that bioanalysts play in improving peoples’ lives and health.

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Panel discussion Q+A follow up

QWhat was your biggest challenge moving from science/operations into business development?

Robin Woods (Alturas Analytics):

Going from a hard science to a ‘soft’ science takes some getting used to as well as developing patience to wait for potential clients to make decisions. At the bench or in lab management you are much more in control and typically you reach expected outcomes when you are running samples. When dealing with clients, there is a lot more maneuvering around personalities and using a completely different side of your brain to ‘close the deal’ when making a pitch.

QDid you obtain an MBA or any formal business education to facilitate your transition?

Robin Woods (Alturas Analytics):

I personally do not have an MBA, nor do any of the Business Development (BD) team at Alturas. We are all scientists who enjoyed ‘talking about the science’ with our clients and it was a natural progression from the bench to BD. I find the most important trait a BD person can have is the ability to relate to clients and an ability to tease out what information the client is looking for. I would say developing ‘antennae’ and a sixth sense of how to read people is much more important than an MBA. Being extremely organized and having an ability to explain scientific techniques that are done in the lab – which a client may not know – is a plus as well.

Q1 in 4 women will experience some form of domestic violence over their lifetime which affects performance in the workplace. In your experience, have you dealt with female colleagues who are experiencing domestic violence? What steps did you take to preserve the employee relationship with the company or organization?

Robin Woods (Alturas Analytics):

If there have been any of our employees who have been subjected to domestic violence, I am not aware of it. Of course there are other traumatic experiences in people’s lifetimes that affect their performance. We have offered counseling, additional time off, held positions for people who needed extended leave and supported local Alternatives to Violence programs so we have information and resources available for our employees should they ever need them.

QIs it possible to enter the bio-analytical field (downstream) as an entry level after having 4 years of experience in molecular biology? What would employers expect in the candidate before they hire?

Robin Woods (Alturas Analytics):

At Alturas, we hire for personality and train for skill. In my book, culture trumps strategy – every time. That said, unless someone has very specific experience, it is more difficult to enter ‘downstream’ at Alturas. Downstream at Alturas would involve a lot of client communication, and knowing the workflow, so we plan on at least 2–5 years before someone would be in a position to work as a PI.

Michele Gunsior (Viela Bio)

Yes, I think it’s possible. There are many different aspects to bioanalysis that touch on a variety of fields. Some of the most common techniques are immunoassays or LC –MS, but new modalities, such as gene therapy, have a different skill set based in molecular biology. Someone who understands the types of instrumentation/methods would be of value here.

QHow did you overcome the obstacles in your bioanalytical career? Can you share useful information that others can use in their own careers? 

Michele Gunsior (Viela Bio)

Mostly simple actions help me overcome obstacles: tackling issues bit-by-bit: it can seem overwhelming at first but concrete steps help with a feeling of accomplishment and continued motivation; self-care: sleep, exercise, and taking time away, all help me feel refreshed with new energy; communication: asking others for help, guidance, or support. You don’t need to go it alone.

QGood leadership and talent development works for men and women, but women can face different challenges in the workplace which make it more difficult to access networks, resources, stretch opportunities etc. What are some of these systemic challenges? What role can male advocates and managers play in addressing these challenges?

Michele Gunsior (Viela Bio)

Some of the systemic challenges are exactly what was mentioned – women aren’t often considered for stretch opportunities, lack adequate sponsorship/mentorship and face unconscious bias. There are some things that women can do for themselves, such as speaking up for the opportunities they want and making their accomplishments more broadly known (both of which can be difficult for women), but male advocates and managers can be hugely impactful by understanding that women face these challenges and actively working to highlight/promote women in their organization.

QWhat are your main motivations in the industry as a woman? 

Michele Gunsior (Viela Bio)

Aside from contributing to better patient health in a meaningful way, it is highlighting the lack of gender parity in many aspects of the pharmaceutical industry.

QIn the panel’s opinion, how important is it to have short- and long-term goals in your career?

Michele Gunsior (Viela Bio)

I’ve found it helpful to have both, although my long-term goals are often not well-defined or specific. For example, when I was younger, a long-term goal was to go into industry (rather than academics), and that informed more specific short-term goals, like choosing a PhD program/lab where there was no overwhelming expectation to be an academic. I find this approach leaves me more open to opportunities that I may never have considered.

QDo you think there is a generational divide between young women and mid-career/senior women in STEM when it comes to perspectives on issues such as sexism? If yes, what steps can we take to address this?

Michele Gunsior (Viela Bio)

Perhaps. Senior women may have had to endure more overt sexism than the unconscious bias we face as women nowadays. It’s much harder to address the unconscious bias – which can be from and against all genders – but I think that steps to address this are rooted in knowledge, communication and true listening. We can too readily dismiss other perspectives because they don’t match our own.

QHow do you respond to criticism during talks as a woman?

Michele Gunsior (Viela Bio)

I don’t view criticism as necessarily a bad thing, but understand that for many it can feel deeply personal. Not only as an attack on one’s work, but also an attack on oneself. I always assume best intentions and honestly consider the validity of the question/criticism. Science is about debate, skepticism and proving your hypothesis; criticism, even if it seems challenging, can lead to deeper insights.