From left: Dr Catherine Elliott (Director of research and partnership at Cancer Research UK), Michelle Mitchell (Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK) and Tracy de Groose (Trustee of Cancer Research UK)
March 8th marked International Women’s Day, and to celebrate we hosted our annual Women of Influence Fellow’s Meeting at the Royal Society in London.
The Women of Influence initiative is a mentorship scheme which pairs exceptional female scientists funded by Cancer Research UK with leading businesswomen. It aims to provide early to mid-career researchers with support and guidance from outside of academia.
The initiative started in 2014, and almost a decade later the scheme has seen around 80 researchers benefitting from their mentor’s experience. There are currently 40 active mentor-mentee pairings, which includes 21 postdoctoral researchers, most of whom are at the beginning of their career.
But why is mentoring important for women in research?
To understand that, we need to acknowledge where we are. At Cancer Research UK core-funded Institutes, 57% of our PhD students are women. Unfortunately, this percentage drops to 29% for those that progress to group leaders, establishing their own independent research group.
Ultimately, we are not seeing enough women progress to more senior roles in academia.
While women and men make up roughly equal proportions of a research community at earlier stages, women may face more barriers when progressing to senior positions. But the barriers women face in the research workplace are not unique to academia.
That’s why we’ve focussed on developing an initiative to capitalise on the insights of women from outside academia who’ve faced similar challenges.
We believe that facilitating an environment where challenges and learnings can be shared offers a way to empower more women in research, and to help them move into leadership roles.
We spoke to some of the incredible mentees and mentors on our Women of Influence programme who shared their experience of the initiative.
Meet some of our women of influence
Dr Sean Lim
Dr Sean Lim is an associate professor and honorary consultant in haematological oncology at the University of Southampton. Her work focusses on understanding and developing new cancer immunotherapies.
She leads her own laboratory research group while also being an NHS consultant. Her training prepared her to be a good doctor and scientist. But when it came to leadership and management skills, Lim had to teach herself.
“The Women of Influence initiative is a great opportunity to learn these skills from experienced and highly successful professionals,” says Lim. “I have learnt new problem-solving skills, and in every meeting my mentor has helped me to become a stronger leader.”
Professor Sara Zanivan
Professor Sara Zanivan’s research focusses on a type of cell, called cancer associated fibroblasts (CAFs), as a therapeutic target in ovarian and triple negative breast cancer. Her research aims to understand how CAFs influence cancer aggressiveness and resistance to therapy.
“When I went to the first meeting organised by Cancer Research UK with all these very successful women, I walked away with a lot of energy and motivation,” says Zanivan.
“At the beginning I joined more for curiosity. I wanted to know what it was about, although I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to get out of it.”
Zanvian joined the scheme when it first launched in 2014 and participated for 2 years. She explains that going in with no goals wasn’t giving her the most of what she could gain in having a mentor. She returned to the initiative later in 2019, with a better understanding of what she wanted to achieve.
Now, after 3 years with her new mentor, Zanivan has been able to define her goals and develop a skill set to help her progress. Both she and her mentor live in Glasgow, where they regularly meet up face to face.
“I’ve really understood the difference between a mentor, a sponsor and a coach, and how to approach people that can support you to achieve your goals.”
Dr Stephanie May
Dr Stephanie May is a postdoctoral researcher at The Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow. Her research focusses on preventing a specific type of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma.
Like many researchers that join the initiative, May signed up so she could improve as a leader. As she progresses in her research career and her team begins to grow, she wants to have the skills to empower her colleagues.
The connection she has with her mentor has created a safe space for her to express her goals and challenges. She explains that while it would be nice to have a woman in research as a mentor, there aren’t enough in senior roles for all early career researchers to have that opportunity.
“Hopefully there will be more female leaders that could be mentors from a scientific point of view. But what I find really helpful is my mentor’s completely unbiased and non-judgmental perspective on things within my job,” says May.
“She doesn’t know the nitty gritty of my research, so the feedback and perspectives on certain situations that I receive are very different to what a scientist would give me. I’ve definitely gained more confidence in myself through the conversations that I’ve had with someone completely outside of the scientific academic world.”
Alice Choi has been a mentor for Women of Influence since 2017, joining with the belief in empowering women working in science.
“Attrition in women in science is a big issue. Having structured mentoring and knowing that it’s there, hopefully will give them a safe space to share, build confidence and create that rapport,” says Choi.
“In an ideal world what we want to get to is a cohort of more confident women in science progressing to that leadership level. And in turn paying it forward and helping with succession planning.”
Choi is also a member of the Research Careers Committee for Cancer Research UK, which oversees a number of funding schemes to develop the careers of early to mid-career cancer researchers. She enjoys seeing how mentoring can make a positive difference, even if it is just thinking about a different side of a situation.
“Mentoring is not a one-way dialogue, it’s very reciprocal. I hope that what I’m sharing is helpful, but I’m also learning from it as well. Having this arrangement gives a different and fresh perspective. The more tools we can have in our kit to encourage greater dialogue, inclusivity and equity, the better.”
Kate Banks oversees leadership, recruitment and development as Chief People Officer at an insurance company, DAS UK. While not having been mentored herself, Banks’ extensive career has built her skill set. Her reason for signing up as a mentor stemmed from her experience receiving breast cancer treatment last year.
“For my type of breast cancer, the survival rates changed dramatically because of new drugs developed. I was very thankful for that and wanted to do whatever I could for Cancer Research UK. I saw the initiative and because of my career I thought this was a way I could help.”
Banks has seen more women joining executive boards, but the numbers haven’t changed enough. That’s true across the economy, from the scientific world to financial services, as the Women of Influence scheme acknowledges. The more women you can bring together, the more that can be shared and tackled.
“You need to build up that trust. People need to be able to have a safe space to vocalise their challenges, their inner thoughts or bounce ideas. And it goes both ways. The trust I share with my mentee means I can talk to her about more than my career, but about my cancer treatment too. She supports me and I support her.”
Sarah Pinch is managing director of Pinch Point Communications and has previously been mentored herself. Throughout her career she has actively mentored others, but her decision to join the Women of Influence initiative was inspired by the passing of a friend from pancreatic cancer.
Pinch felt her overlapping experience, partnering with NHS services, could help women working in cancer research. But she also values the differences of their working worlds.
“My mentee has told me how much she values having a confidential and safe space with a woman in business. I’m distanced from her world enough that she feels confident to open up about issues she has.”
“As a mentor that’s what we’re here for. Not to make decisions but to help them make decisions. I feel incredibly rewarded and have learnt so much about the environment my mentee works in. The best thing for me has been to see her grow in confidence. It’s inspirational.”
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was ‘embrace equity’. Equity stretches beyond having even numbers, it’s about having equal opportunities and experiences. In discussions at our Women of Influence Fellow’s Meeting, many mentors shared their past experience of not having opportunities to be mentored, let alone mentored by a woman in a senior role.
We want to support women in research and ensure they feel they have every opportunity to progress. That has to start from the beginning of their careers. Current mentees stressed that focussing on postdoctoral women is a vital step in creating future research leaders.
That’s why, on March 7th, Cancer Research UK hosted a pilot event, ‘Postdoc Futures: Empowering Women in Cancer Research’. It brought together 70 women from across our postdoctoral community to connect, collaborate and tackle the barriers to progression for women in cancer research. The event aimed to help empower women to take the next step in their career, whatever that might be – inside or outside of academia.
As an organisation, we are committed to developing future cancer research leaders. Our aim is to do this not only through funding but also through dedicated career support. We see the Women of Influence initiative as an important part of this mission, ensuring that more women are attracted to a career in science and progress to senior positions. From there, they can be role models for future generations of researchers, too.
Find out more about Women of Influence here.
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