Inspirational Women in Life Sciences

A cause for celebration

Historically, women have continued to face barriers during and after their education. It is therefore both humbling and exciting to learn how far women in science have come. Here, I have highlighted some inspirational women in life sciences that are providing role models for our female leaders today and tomorrow. We do have solid foundations in place to build on, which gives us cause for celebration. But I believe there is more work to be done.

The fight to study science

It wasn’t until 1948, that Cambridge University finally allowed women to be awarded degrees. In the US, many of the Ivy League schools did not admit women until the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Today, women make up of the majority of US 4-year bachelor’s degree holders and even more notably, women have also surpassed men by earning more Doctoral degrees.

In Life Sciences specifically, Biological and Agricultural Sciences PhDs were awarded to 53.8% women vs. 46.2% men in 2020. However, overall science PhD programs still attract more men than women and much work is needed to bridge the gap in other STEM disciplines, notably Mathematics and Computer Sciences.

So, how is this increase transferring into the life sciences industry and inspiring our female leaders?

Inspirational women in life sciences

There are many female role models out there, from Elizabeth Blackman, the first female physician in the US. Notably, on her journey to the medical profession, she received 10 rejection letters including one suggestion to disguise herself as a man to gain admission! To Marie Curie who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her pioneering work in radioactivity. Through to Dorothy Hodgkin who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her breakthrough discovery of the atomic structure of insulin.

Yet some of our best female role models can be found closer to home.

“My mother is my biggest inspiration”, said Ami Shah Brown, SVP Regulatory Affairs, Icosavax. “She is one of very few female board-certified forensic pathologists – she’s still working at 80! She blazed a pathway for women in science today – she balanced family, children, and built her career in her own unique way through hard work, sacrifice, and authenticity.

“She taught me that you can do it all, it’s not easy but you can”.

Kelly Mumma, Executive Director, Human Resources, Alpine Immune Sciences had a similar perspective. “I was raised with the belief that anything is possible. My grandmother and mother were very resourceful. Moving into my professional life I’m inspired daily by the women in technical fields that I get to work with and the qualities they bring.”

Other scientific female leaders had similar experiences of great female mentors to guide and inspire them at the early stages of their careers. “During my PhD I worked with a fantastic Immunologist who balanced her career and family. I also got to work with great leaders and mentors at Amgen and watched them excel professionally, as well as in other parts of their life” shared Heather Arnett, Vice President, Research, Variant Bio.

Next steps for women in life sciences

Whilst huge progress has been made for women in science, the Measuring Diversity in the Biotech Industry 2022 report had some revealing insight. Whilst it was a near 50/50 split of female to male employees in a sample of 36 biotechnology companies, only 34% of women held Executive positions.

Further, in an analysis of 84 biotechnology companies, less than 23% had female CEOs. “While women have made strides getting a seat at the table, they are still underrepresented at the table”, says Kelly Mumma.

It is a significant achievement that more women than ever before are in life sciences leadership positions, and one that has holistically benefitted the overall industry. Yet there is much work to still be done.

Thanks to media visibility and continued growth in STEM awareness programs aimed at targeting school age students, more and more young girls are talking about how they want to be a scientist when they grow up.

“Be your authentic self and define life sciences with women’s leadership styles as a part of it” is Ami Shah Brown’s recommendation, “make it the norm”.

Our focus as we look ahead, must be to continue to provide role models, share stories and build an ecosystem within life sciences to nurture, develop and keep them, because these women really are making the world a better place.

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