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Cancer Grand Challenges: Michele Cleary on celebrating women in science 

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by Cancer Research UK | Philanthropy and partnerships

8 March 2021

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Michele Cleary

Michele Cleary is CEO of The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, co-funders of the Cancer Grand Challenges SPECIFICANCER team. We caught up with Michele for International Women’s Day to discuss role models, mentors and choosing to challenge.

The slogan of International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. What does this mean to you?  

It is critically important that we actively choose to challenge bias and gender stereotypes that persist when it comes to scientific research. Women scientists are often viewed unfairly as less competent than their male counterparts even when they have equal or better qualifications and track records. Such perceptions need to be challenged.  

At The Mark Foundation, we have fantastic women scientists on our staff and among our advisors, and we fund, support and encourage many brilliant female scientists. We continually work to identify bias and keep it out of the steps we take to source outstanding research. But there remains a lot of work to be done to address gender disparities more broadly in science. On this International Women’s Day, we celebrate how far we’ve come while also committing to the necessary hard work to get us where we need to go. 

Why should we approach science and research in a global, multidisciplinary and collaborative way?  

As a foundation, our goal is to uncover the unmet needs in cancer and then seek out researchers who are trying to address those gaps, but who may be stymied by the inability to launch very promising science because it is too risky. Many of these unmet needs are complex, and it would be impossible for a single investigator to execute the multi-dimensional science necessary for success in tackling such complexity. We’ve seen first-hand that when multiple disciplines and areas of expertise come together to confront the vast challenges presented by cancer, long-standing boundaries can be broken through at amazing speed.  

As CEO, I advance these goals by ensuring that The Mark Foundation’s scientific team proactively seeks out the most promising team science and then puts their own knowledge and energy to work in advancing the most exciting ideas.  

As we celebrate and honour women, is there anyone in particular who has inspired you in your life?   

There have been many women who have served as role models and mentors in my career. Observing women who have gone before me in navigating bias in the workplace has given me tools to more readily spot when I or a female colleague are being treated unfairly because of our gender and call out the behavior firmly but diplomatically.  

I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude to the male mentors and sponsors I’ve had throughout the course of my professional journey. These men have not been afraid to help me realize my potential, have cleared barriers for me when certain job opportunities opened up, and have been excellent sounding boards as I learned to overcome blind spots. In addition to successful women serving as role models to other women, more men in senior positions need to have the courage to step up when they see potential and provide the same support and encouragement to women if we truly want to make substantial strides on this front. 

– Emily Farthing