Header image: In the courtyard at Izon’s office in Christchurch, New Zealand. Back row, from left to right: Leia Austin (R&D Scientist), Emma Blundell (Chief Scientist), Hannah Prebble (Business Development Manager - Asia Pacific), Clarice Du Toit (Mechanical Engineer). Front row, from left to right: Penny McRandle (Marketing Scientist), Rebecca Murphy (R&D Scientist), Teresa Awan (Production Technician), Michele Trott (Scientific Content Manager).
“Have you seen much of a gender imbalance throughout your careers?”. The whole room laughed, as we had just been talking about how most of us had never had a female mentor in STEM, and had been taught by mostly male lecturers at university.
It’s 2022, and we’d probably all agree – it would be best if sexist stereotypes and certain gender imbalances could just disappear, and we never had to talk about it again. However, we aren’t at that stage (see below for tip-of-the-iceberg examples), and the International Day of Women and Girls in Science remains as one of the many initiatives that exist to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.
In light of this, a few of us at Izon Science Headquarters (Christchurch, New Zealand) met in the boardroom to share our experiences and thoughts on careers, attitudes, and cultures in STEM. Our out-of-town colleagues also wrote in with their thoughts. We discussed what makes us ‘tick’, took a walk down memory lane, and shared our goals for the future. At the very least, we had fun – but do hope the effort contributes in some way to the bigger picture.
You don’t have to look too far to see that society has a way to go yet:
Going back to the question ‘Have you seen much of a gender imbalance throughout your careers?’ – the answer is yes, yes we have.
“In biology, when I was studying, there were way more women than men coming through – to the point where it was getting a bit extreme,” says Hannah, Business Development Manager - Asia Pacific. “It just hasn’t quite progressed up the chain. The last company I worked in was in medical physics. There were three females on the payroll, out of 20.”
And for Chief Scientist Emma Blundell, her experiences are typical of the leaky, academic STEM pipeline: “When I think of the PhD groups at uni, I'd say they were actually pretty balanced. There were some that were swayed in one direction. And, maybe it was just my uni, but the organic chemists seem to be more male in that particular group at the time. Also I've seen a lot of groups of women with a male boss. The groups that I've been in, the supervisor was pretty much always male.”
“I have worked in university-based biomedical research labs for many years,” says Scientific Content Writer Priscila Dauros-Singorenko, “and have seen that most people working in that field are women: as students, technicians, or researchers. However, senior positions, like the head of the research group or department, are mostly men. Fortunately, in the last few years I have seen that trend slowly changing.”
Marianne Marchioni, EMEA Training and Support Manager, brings up an infuriating one: “I haven’t experienced a gender imbalance throughout my studies, however I have experienced it during my PhD and when I was looking for a job. Companies are less keen to hire a 30-year-old woman because they are afraid of them starting a family and being less committed to their work.” (Relevant: What To Do If You're Asked About Kids In An Interview)
At the time of writing, Izon welcomed Clarice Du Toit to the Christchurch team as a mechanical engineer. “The gap is improving – my Mechanical class was about 30% female, but it still has plenty of room to improve,” says Clarice. “The good thing is that as more women graduate and take on positions in STEM, they then become role models for the next generation of women to follow and that helps to close that gap.”
While gender biases might exist, they don’t exist everywhere. For R&D Scientist, Leia Austin, it has been fairly non-existent. When asked ‘how well does society support women in science, and how could it do better?’ she replies, “Being at Izon, I don’t feel judged for my gender and I feel like I come on an equal footing. But because I don't necessarily face it, I haven't really given a lot of thought. And I don't really know anyone personally who has experienced that. We're lucky. I know it’s a thing, and maybe New Zealand has less of a bias?”.
Very possibly – and, some of us may have found benefits in attending all-girl high schools, as we could relate to Hannah’s experience: “I went to a feminist high school where they were like ‘you can do anything you want!’ – nothing was a barrier, and it's actually quite cool, because it made you think ok, I could do whatever I want.”
At the same time, production technician Teresa Awan points out the absence of encouragement towards engineering: “I also went to a female high school, but I feel like we never talked about careers. Even though we had career advisors, I don’t think I ever heard the word engineer.” Marketing Scientist Penny McRandle adds “I’d agree with that – it was very pushed towards the health sciences, like doctors and pharmacists.”
Of course, female mentors in STEM do exist, and they did for Scientific Content Writer Priscila Dauros-Singorenkeo: “In academia I had a female mentor who helped me work around the challenging post-doctoral environment. She gave me tips to navigate and progress in my career as a researcher.”
Meanwhile Marianne learnt from two: “I had two during my time at university. Both were very different and showed me that ambition doesn’t mean sacrifice or compromise but goes with hard work and a good mindset.” Meanwhile, R&D scientist Rebecca Murphy was inspired early on in life: “My auntie works at Ara (an institute of technology in Christchurch, NZ) and I used to go there with her sometimes… she worked in the lab which was pretty cool.”
For Penny McRandle, Marketing Scientist, ambitious entrepreneurs provide inspiration: “When I look at places like LinkedIn, one woman that stands out to me is Brianne West, the founder of Ethique. She talks about her career a lot – I really enjoy that kind of content and seeing a woman doing that, as you see men doing it all the time. But it's really cool to see someone really championing it, having an opinion and putting it out there.”
In contrast to years ago, at least in many cultures, nobody really tells women straight-up what they should and shouldn’t do. Instead, influences can be subtle. As Emma says, “I don’t think anyone said specifically, you shouldn’t try that, or try to divert things. It’s just been there and then it can be sort of a consensus of the groups – for example in school, some girls wanted to become involved in social care and then it became popular in social groups – so there are lots of things that can influence people.”
Other subtle influences can be found throughout society, as Clarice highlights from an engineering perspective: “I think it has a lot to do with understanding what engineering is, and how early we’re exposed to it. From the difference in toys marketed towards young girls versus boys, and the portrayal of scientists, engineers and ‘inventors’ in cartoons and movies, to how many female role models a child has that were involved in STEM. There are plenty of examples as to why there aren’t enough girls that grow up believing that a career in STEM is something they can achieve.”
It’s a tricky one. We’re told that ‘women leaders inspire women leaders’ (totally agree) and that it’s important to raise the visibility of women in STEM. One way to do that is to be mindful of having a better male-female mix in senior roles, and in settings like conferences.
“If I was going to be invited on a panel, I'd want to be invited on because my research was relevant, and because I was an expert – not just because they wanted a female on the panel. It's so tricky and I think most people are not trying to have ‘token’ people,” says Hannah.
On the other hand, if you have the appropriate experience, surely it’s obvious you have earnt your spot, just like everyone else? If we ever face a feeling of ‘tokenism’, let’s all agree to channel Emma’s words:
“You’re not a token, you’re there to do what you need to do.”
From the early days of thinking we wanted to be vets, forensic scientists, medical doctors and more, we’ve now landed at Izon Science with a lot more experience behind us. Between us, we’ve navigated being at a conference with an 8-week-old baby, moved cities, moved countries, developed and validated new products, published papers, pursued unconventional careers paths, managed product launches, and developed new skills.
So, what does the future hold? And what drives everyone to do their best work at Izon? On this note, the conversation drifted to company culture at Izon. Here are a few snippets:
To close, here are a few words from everyone who contributed – on professional goals, what drives us to do our best, and careers in STEM:
Priscila Dauros-Singorenko, Scientific Content Writer (on motivation): “A scientific career has provided me with a solid foundation of ethics and professional values. Thankfully, these traits have naturally led to an attitude of performing at 100% wherever I am placed. At Izon, as a scientific content writer, I aim to be transparent, thorough, and accurate with all the scientific information available. This is extremely critical nowadays, where misinformation can be very harmful.”
Priscila (on career advice): “It might sound cliché, but I would say follow your dream. If you have a natural curiosity for science, explore and develop it.”
Teresa Awan, Production Technician (on professional goals): “I love the lab, so I chose practical jobs. I’m still in a practical role and again, I've found myself leaning towards the quality side. So I like helping Peter with some of that. That is probably my goal long-term, to be in a quality role in science.”
Leia Austin, R&D Scientist (on motivation): “I think it’s just how I am – I want to do well at whatever I’m doing. It is really cool to see customers succeeding too. You might see an article in the news about the Mayo Clinic and then you think ‘oh they’re one of our customers and we help with their research!’. It is cool to see!”
Michele Trott, Scientific Content Manager (on motivation): “It’s about wanting to do your best to support your colleagues, and also being proud of your own work at the end of the day. And of course, being connected to technology that could make a big impact in healthcare is very rewarding.”
Michele (on career advice): “I am seeing huge opportunities where a strong scientific background is combined with another skill or experience. That might be in graphic design, marketing, or specific data modelling. So my advice, if you love biology for example, would be to develop another skill alongside it – and that doesn’t necessarily have to be through formal education.”
Hannah Prebble, Business Development Manager - Asia Pacific: (on professional goals): “One of the reasons I took this job is because I was looking for something that I can really grow into. And like I feel like Izon is the sort of place where there are opportunities to grow. I want to feel like I’m moving forward in my career and it’s nice to have a challenging role – it’s cool because it’s got heaps of potential.”
Penny McRandle, Marketing Scientist (on professional goals): “I’m excited for the marketing team to grow and see how my role will shift within that. One day I’d love to grow a team or mentor someone – I’ve had great mentors in my previous roles, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot in my role so it would be nice to have more people to go along that journey with, I see growth here.”
Penny (on motivation): “I think it’s really cool to see the research that people are producing with our products. That definitely is motivating for me to see the field grow and the new knowledge coming out. It's fascinating reading the articles and seeing the sheer number of them, and see the contribution we are making.”
Rebecca Murphy, R&D Scientist (on professional goals): “I started in the production lab then moved to research and development after three years at Izon. I have really enjoyed R&D so far, so I want to continue doing that for the foreseeable future.”
Marianne Marchioni, EMEA Training and Support Manager (on career advice): “Do whatever you want, work for it, do not compromise, stay true to yourself. Raise your voice if needed.”
Emma Blundell, Chief Scientist (on career advice): “Have a level of appreciation for the amount of work that it involves, and the challenges you might come across compared to other disciplines. You do have to put a lot of work in. It’s about qualifications and everyone’s becoming on par, so you have to do a little bit more and a little bit more. So just to be aware that the work has got to be put in it, you’re not going to finish school and then just walk into a job… do some extracurricular stuff, try and work part-time in a lab if that’s what you’re passionate about.”
Emma: “It would be nice to be considered as a leader rather than a manager” – (Teresa: “I think people would see you as a leader. I see managers as just controlling what goes on, but people actually come to you for guidance.”) – Emma: “I can see the outputs and I want to be involved in the next big thing for us – and we've got plenty going on.”
Clarice Du Toit, Mechanical Engineer (on career advice): “Be bold, ask questions and allow yourself to be excited by having a world of information that you don’t yet understand. Most importantly, find your why, the thing that makes you excited to learn. Do you want to make an impact in the world, help design the technology of the future? Become a role model for the next generation of little girls to look up to? Your why will help you reach your goals in study and in your career, and inevitably inspire others to do the same.”
Clarice (on motivation): “At Izon, I am surrounded by a range of very smart, technical individuals, so I can always find a source of inspiration. But one of the most motivating things for me is that I have a space to grow and learn and put my knowledge to work on technology that is going to help so many people.”