Sometimes it's hard to be a woman. And it can be particularly difficult if you have to juggle the complexities of biotechnology, the practicalities of running a business, and the responsibility of bringing up a family. But it can and has been done. At the European Parliament's "Women entrepreneurs in the biotechnology industry" event on 20 September, four women told an eager audience how to survive and thrive in this challenging environment.
Bernd Halling, representing the event organiser Europabio, opened proceedings by explaining that the theme was chosen because "women were now role models, they had the education, they had the ability to make quick decisions. These all challenge the traditional models of science and gender." In addition to the four entrepreneurs, two representatives of the European Parliament and one representative of the European Commission attended.
The first difficulty women face is getting the education required in the biotechnology field. Eryl McNally, MEP, who is also a member of the Committee on Women's Rights and Equal Opportunities, said, "Until recently there has been a quite disgraceful lack of nurturing of women who want to become scientists. Unless you were the daughter of an engineer who had no brothers, it was quite tough to study science. School textbooks are still very sexist--I was shown one the other day in which all the illustrations showed boys, with not one girl." Geraldine Schofield, a microbiologist who now works for the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, agreed that it is particularly difficult for women to get started up the science career ladder.
Life sciences do, nevertheless, attract women, said McNally, but they remain underrepresented at the senior levels of research institutions and universities. But the situation is improving, said Schofield. "I can remember that 13 years ago, I worked among 1000 researchers who did not have one female manager," she said. "But now, the more women you see in science, the more role models there are."
Getting on in a scientific business can also be difficult for women. Yvonne Petterson, from Sweden, established her own venture capital company after having worked for 20 years in the finance area of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. Now her firm has helped and invested in 25 start-up companies. She claims that in most of her meetings during that time she was the only woman. But she is trying to change the perception that business is only for men. "I have heard people who do what I am doing described as business angels," said Petterson. "I believe that angels have no gender!"
Nicole Dewandre, representing the European Commission in her capacity as head of the women in science sector of DG Research, pointed out that simply setting goals isn't enough. For example, on the evaluation panels that are established to look at the progress of the Commission's Fifth Framework programs in the "Women in Science" campaign, a target of 40% representation of women on the panels has been set. However, they have only reached 25% representation, largely because not enough women have applied. Despite these shortfalls, there was a consensus that positive discrimination is not the answer. As one member of the audience pointed out, it could make the situation even worse. Hiring unqualified women could inadvertently give ammunition to the cynics, the audience member said.
Women may have a long way to go, but the future looks bright. Schofield believes that large companies, as well as start-ups, will soon be employing both more women and more entrepreneurs. "I am convinced that biosciences will be part of the knowledge society and seniority will be increasingly based on knowledge," she said.