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From speed-dating to success – the first year of our Women of Influence initiative

by Nick Peel | Analysis

8 March 2015

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If you’re a scientist, and you happen to be female, chances are you face a big problem in the research world.

This is because there’s a startling shortfall in the number of women in science who go on to run their own labs and take up the highest positions – and that includes here at Cancer Research UK.

Of course there are exceptions, and we fund a number of senior female scientists researching cancer on all fronts – but that doesn’t hide the fact that, while half of our PhD students are female, only a fifth of our institutes have a woman at the helm.

Why do so many women leave science, or don’t reach positions of seniority? Some cite a lack of advice or leadership as the problem; others believe that female researchers face an unfair system when it comes to balancing a promising scientific career with life outside the lab.

Either way, our Women of Influence initiative is looking to redress the balance.

Established just over a year ago, the programme is bringing together a unique network of top business women to volunteer to build mentoring relationships with our most promising young female scientists and clinicians as they move up the career ladder.

Sarah (left) and Cary (right)

Sarah (left) and Cary (right)

So to mark this anniversary, we caught up with Women of Influence pairing Dr Sarah Bohndiek and her mentor – tech entrepreneur Cary Marsh – to hear how they’ve been getting on.

Sarah leads a team at both the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute and the University of Cambridge. They combine their expertise in physics with biology know how to find new ways to diagnose cancer, using specialised imaging equipment.

Cary started her first company, Mydeo, in 2005, attracting investment from US Consumer electronics giant, Best Buy, before becoming the first and only European video-hosting service to be integrated into Microsoft’s own video editing software. Cary is now CEO of Punchfront Innovation, and will be launching her latest patent-pending products later this year.

Speed-dating with scientists

Cancer Research UK: How were you paired up?

Cary: We went to a speed-dating event with all the researchers and the Women of Influence board, which was fascinating: you speak to someone for three minutes and then the bell rings and you move on.

It was really important to work out who you connect with. And when I met Sarah I thought we hit it off really well.

It was great to be paired up with her because I love physics. I did physics A-level and got a grade A! That’s still one of my biggest achievements to date.

Sarah: At the launch event it was amazing to talk to all the women and realise the similarities between being in business and a leadership role in science. I never thought there would be such similarity between those two rather different perspectives on life in general.

Cancer Research UK: What inspired you to get involved with the initiative?

Cary: I’ve reached a point in my career where I want to do something that feels good and gives a bit back. It really strikes a chord with me. I’m a STEM ambassador, so I’m interested in inspiring young people – particularly girls – to follow careers in science, technology, engineering and maths.

I saw this as an opportunity to offer something to somebody that’s in a situation I was 10 years ago. But I’ve also been able to indulge my physics brain!

Sarah: I’ve found mentoring relationships very productive in the past, and when I’ve been at a challenge point or transition point in my career I’ve usually found someone – be they male or female – to help with these challenges.

So I wanted to address challenges with time management, team development and leadership. I also wanted to be able to reclaim my life, which I’d sort of lost over the first six months of running my lab.

Tackling the shortfall

Cancer Research UK: Were you both aware of the challenges facing women in science before taking part?

Sarah: I never really thought of myself as ‘a woman who’s a scientist’. I just thought of myself as a scientist. It was only when I started my own lab team that I started to notice that being in that position was very unusual.

And I never thought about the problem of women leaving science until I was in a more senior position and everyone else was dropping out.

Cary: I was very much aware of the disparity in the business world. But it never really occurred to me that this might mean that we’ve only got about half of the best minds in the country working on trying to cure cancer.

If ever that disparity is more relevant it’s in curing cancer.

Cancer Research UK: How have you been working together since pairing up?

Cary: Having a mentor who isn’t someone with the same job as you but 10 years ahead can be really refreshing. And despite the fact we are poles apart in terms of our career paths, we’re finding we face the same challenges – it might be managing people, or it’s about confidence.

So we’ve been meeting up every three months or so and discussing these challenges, putting actions in place to try and address them.

Sarah: Cary has really helped me with the challenges I was facing.

I’ve now got a team of 10 and, thanks to advice from Cary and the books she’s recommended, they are now working in sub-teams and reinforcing each other’s research projects. They have a network for problem solving, and only when no one knows the answer do they come to me. This has really relieved some pressure on me and generates a nice community spirit in the lab.

Cary: It’s also really important to keep the team motivated, whether that’s through being praised or getting positive rewards. I said to Sarah, when you’re praising someone, if you do the entire appraisal with 25 wonderful comments and then just one thing at the end that could do with improving, the only thing they’re going to walk away from the meeting remembering is that bad thing.

Sarah:  So now I’ve been looking out for things and praising people. That’s not something you usually get in the academic world.

You kind of do your thing and you go in and the boss says: ‘did you try this, did you do that control, what about this?’ And they never really say: ‘well-done, really good job’.

You don’t often get that reinforcement, so now I’m consciously trying to do that following Cary’s advice.

Award-winning science

Cancer Research UK: What’s been the best thing to come out of your mentoring relationship?

Cary: One of the first things I said to Sarah was that she wasn’t bigging herself up enough.

So I picked out an award that I thought I could enter her for, entered her, and she won it!

Sarah: It was the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) research award. And since Cary helped me overcome this problem with self-promotion I’ve entered and won some other awards – I’m on a bit of a roll now.

Cary: She was up against some really amazing women for the WISE award. And now, when Sarah’s recruiting, and people are looking at what she’s doing they’ll see she’s an award-winning scientist. It’s going to attract talent.

Sarah: It’s really helped. Recruiting the first two people for my lab was a real challenge. I had to advertise a couple of times and didn’t get many applications.

Whereas the last position I recruited for received 65 applications – it took me a whole day to read the CVs!

And I said to Cary that it was because it was just after I’d won the awards and people were a bit more familiar with my work.

But the whole experience has been great. Cary has helped me tackle these challenges head on, and ultimately work more efficiently and effectively.

And as is so often the case, we’ve become friends and have a more relaxed chat now. So in a few months time I’ll hit another crunch point and I’ll know who to call.

Half way there

Sarah and Cary are just one example of how getting a fresh perspective can help keep our research progress on track.

And through our Women of Influence programme we will make sure our female scientists have the support they need to keep asking the research questions that will ultimately beat cancer.

But the programme itself also needs support. And at the half way point of the campaign, we’re within touching distance of raising half of our overall goal of raising £1million to fund more research. With your support, we’ll get there sooner, and help keep our female scientists doing what they do best as they climb the career ladder.