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International Women’s Day: A Conversation with Leaders in STEM

dark blue graphic with international womens day written on top and pictures of female scientists and leaders

With International Women’s Day 2023 upon us, we asked Victoria Savage, Head of Biology INFEX Therapeutics Ltd, and Ruth Roberts, Director and Co-Founder ApconiX Ltd, about their experiences as women working in STEM, the disparities in funding for female founders, and the advice they’d give to girls and young women about the industry. 

Both businesses are based at Alderley Park, our world leading science and innovation campus in Cheshire, home to the UK’s largest single site life science campus.

What are your thoughts on the recent findings on funding disparity?

Recent figures show that less than 2p in every £1 of UK equity funding went to all-female founder businesses in 2022, which was no improvement on 2021. A lot of the funding disparity can arguably be addressed through representation, as so much of the disparity is a direct result of there being so few all-female founding teams. 

Victoria Savage observed that “Research tells us that the most successful teams have a good diversity of cultures, including both men and women, to reflect different lived experiences. Encouraging more women into senior and leadership positions will positively impact companies and STEMs investment disparity.”

Why Are Female Founding Teams So Rare?

STEM’s lack of all-female founding teams is a highly complex issue. From a lack of female graduates seeking careers in STEM, through to existing societal biases around family life, there are a myriad of reasons behind the gender disparity in these industries. 

As Victoria has argued: “Empowering girls from a young age to get involved in science and pursue careers in STEM subjects is key. You have to see it to be it.  If there are more women here, others will think ‘that could be me’. But addressing inequalities that lie later on in a woman's working life are also important.”

In 2019, Alison Rose found that the UK economy could be boosted by £250bn and 1.1m more businesses if more was done to close the gender gap in British entrepreneurship. Whilst the economic incentive isn’t as important as the ethical one - it goes to show just how great the loss is when we don’t invest in female talent.

How Can I Break Gender Stereotypes as a Female Leader in STEM?

The balance of men and women pursuing careers in STEM subjects is slowly improving, but there’s a long way to go before equality is reached (we recently explored the topic in greater detail here). Female representation is important in all subjects, but in STEM there is significant disparity between men and women in the workforce. In the UK, women and girls make up 26% and 24% of the STEM graduates and workforce, respectively. So, there’s still plenty to be done to encourage more women and girls to study STEM subjects and pursue careers in these fields.

However, as shared by Ruth, there is much more awareness of equality in opportunity - driven primarily by progress in other sectors such as sport, especially football and rugby. This might accelerate the rate of change in STEM fields, too.

If the STEM industries don’t reflect the demographic of the UK, key talent is undoubtedly being overlooked. Over the next ten years, Victoria hopes to see us get much closer to achieving equality in STEM, saying: “the balance of men and women pursuing careers in STEM subjects is slowly improving, but we have a long way to go before equality is reached.”

What Does International Women’s Day Mean For The STEM Industries?

Both Victoria and Ruth discussed how International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM industries and publicise their successes. This visibility enables women and girls still in education to see what is possible for women in their field of study. Victoria Savage added:

“These role models are hugely important in providing reassurance to the next generation of female scientists, giving them the confidence to push past harmful gender stereotypes. This will hopefully lead to more women in STEM industries at all levels.

But International Women’s Day also serves as a timely reminder of the gender disparity that remains in STEM. We need this reminder to keep the issue on the global agenda until equality is achieved, and female talent is recognised.” 

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