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How our Women of Influence programme sets scientists up for success

by Dee Kilbride | Research Feature

8 March 2021

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Women of Influence event in 2018
A Cancer Research UK Women of Influence event in 2018.

Women of Influence pairs Cancer Research UK-funded female scientists with leading businesswomen to provide early career mentorship. We spoke to three participants – one mentor and two of her mentees – about their experiences of being involved.

While women and men are, in general, equally represented early on in their scientific careers, we know that women may face more barriers in progressing to senior roles. Our grant diversity data report, for example, reveals that fewer women than men are funded at senior levels through our programme awards; only 28% of programme awards go to female researchers. Although equally successful when they do apply, the data suggest that fewer women put themselves forward for these more significant grants in the first place.   

Women of Influence mentors aim to equip female early career researchers with confidence, camaraderie and corporate know-how to help them navigate obstacles and achieve their full potential as research leaders. 

Alice Choi, Women of Influence mentor: “Diversity of thinking and exposure are very important in the development of well-rounded professionals.” 

Everyone needs support in their career at some point, but I think that women can sometimes face very specific challenges, particularly around confidence, communication and negotiation skills, and balancing the needs of work versus family commitments. Having a mentor to share thoughts with, seek advice from and just someone to bounce ideas off in a safe environment can sometimes make all the difference.  

As a scientist by training myself, the power of great science and its ability to change lives for the better is obvious to me. We have some amazing female scientists and researchers out there, all facing their own individual challenges. Anything we can do to encourage great talent needs to be supported. There’s no place for inequality or bias – gender-related or otherwise – in science, so I was delighted to be able to support the Women of Influence initiative.   

It’s a great opportunity – a privilege, actually – to make a positive difference, meet new people and have a more enlightened outlook on the challenges that other female professionals are facing. Even as a mentor, I’ve had the opportunity to learn new things from my mentees. 

Diversity of thinking and exposure are very important in the development of well-rounded professionals. Many of the skills and experience that are acquired in a commercial setting – like compelling communication, networking leadership, effective operational and management skills – are also important in the research environment. The more we can equip our researchers and scientists with these skills, the further they as individuals and cancer research as a field will go! 

Alice is Chief Operating Officer for McCann Health Medical Communications. 

 

Evropi Theodoratou, Women of Influence mentee: “I decided to apply for a promotion to professorship sooner than I would have done if I hadn’t been part of Women of Influence.” 

Before getting involved in Women of Influence, my mentors were all academics – and all men – so I was keen to get mentorship support from a successful businesswoman. Many of the barriers women face when progressing to senior positions are not unique to academia. Pairing with leading businesswomen can help female academics to reach the top of their careers. 

I started meeting with Alice at a point when I had grown my group quite considerably – from two PhD students to a team of 10 people including five PhD students, a postdoc, a study manager, a research assistant and two research nurses. I used to spend a lot of time in weekly meetings and answering emails. I was finding it challenging to move towards a more hands-off support role.  

Alice had some very useful suggestions, like reducing the frequency of meetings to once every two or four weeks, introducing a tiered structure that allowed senior members of the group to take some of the management responsibility, and blocking time in my diary to do my own reading and keep up with advances in the field. These tips were very helpful and made a real difference in the way I managed my time. I still use all of them! 

One of the most important things I’ve gained from this initiative is becoming more confident and prepared to take more risks. To give an example, I decided to apply for a promotion to professorship sooner than I would have done if I hadn’t been part of Women of Influence – and I was successful!  

Evropi is a CRUK Career Development Fellow based at the University of Edinburgh. 

 

Katrin Ottersbach, Women of Influence mentee: “I try not to shy away from challenging situations anymore, but to see them as opportunities to grow.” 

It’s very important to have role models and other women to confide in and get advice from. This is particularly important in professions – like scientific research – where women are underrepresented. I have always thought it’s easier for an insecure person to hide in academia than in a more corporate environment, where I would say selling oneself is more directly linked to being successful. That’s why I felt I could learn a lot from a non-academic about asserting and promoting myself more. 

The Women of Influence mentors can assist with a wide variety of problems and challenges, from personal development to career advice. What really helped me was to identify situations that I found challenging and where I felt I could develop more, and then, together with Alice, discover ways of dealing with them.  

I’ve realised that everyone has similar fears and insecurities, but there are ways of dealing with them. I try not to shy away from challenging situations anymore, but to see them as opportunities to grow. For example, now that I’ve chaired a couple of committees and working groups, I find it a lot easier to lead discussions. I also feel more confident in getting my voice heard.  

Despite starting my mentorship with Alice during the pandemic, which meant there haven’t been a lot of opportunities to apply what I’ve learned – especially since face-to-face meetings have not yet resumed – my confidence has definitely grown. I feel that my opinion and contributions are valued, and my advice is sought by others, even by colleagues who are senior to me.  

Katrin is a CRUK Programme Foundation Awardee based at the University of Edinburgh.