While women make up half of the global population, they continue to be underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines around the world. Even as women are making progress in these fields in higher education, earning 53% of STEM college degrees in 2018, Pew Research notes they are heavily overrepresented among health-related jobs and underrepresented in several other occupational clusters such as life science, physical science and engineering.
In 2011, the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women adopted a report with agreed conclusions on access and participation of women and girls in education, training and science and technology, and for the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work. Two years later, the General Assembly adopted a resolution which noted “full and equal access to and participation in science, technology and innovation for women and girls of all ages is imperative for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”
On 11 February, we celebrate the 7thInternational Day of Women & Girls in Science. This recognizes not only the critical contribution that increasing access to and participation in science by women will improve economic development around the world, but can progress the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Vitafoods reached out to multiple women in STEM fields in the nutraceutical community, asking for insight on the appeal of science, the obstacles they’ve faced, and their hopes for the future.
UN Factoid: Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues.
Kyley Paul, CEO, NaturalSci Regulatory Consulting
"I had an interest in science from a very young age. I remember being fascinated in elementary school that chemistry could create (formulate) the cure for cancer. I had an affinity for science and it came naturally to me. That interest continued and grew throughout high school and university. I believed my career path at the time would end at becoming a physician, a specialist; perhaps cardiothoracic. or gastroenterology. In fourth-year university at a career fair, I came across a Post-Graduate program for Pharmaceutical Regulatory Affairs, which I believed combined my interest for innovative medicine PLUS have seemingly reasonable working hours! After completing the program, I was hired as the domestic Regulatory Coordinator at Jamieson Laboratories where I gained much of my industry and practical experience, prior to starting my own consulting company in later 2015.
In my experience, one obstacle facing women in science is exposure and visibility. There are many women in sciences doing incredible things—though they don’t (or haven’t) seem(ed) to be focused on as much in the media and in nutraceutical businesses in general. I have personally had countless encounters where male executives relentlessly questioned my experience and knowledge—likely because in their tenure I was the first female regulatory expert they faced.
The nutraceutical industry can become more welcoming to women in science by not only showcasing them, but also allowing them to show up in person at events! I have noticed in a couple of industry sectors that women in the industry are highlighted in media, then at the actual industry conferences, the female representatives are less than 5% of the attendees! Which is extremely shocking and unnerving in person! I think simply, more women need to show up more often and not be held back."
UN Factoid: The work of female researchers is underrepresented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion.
Julia Wiebe, PhD, managing director, red otc development GmbH
"I wanted a stimulating career where boredom was excluded from the job description. As a researcher, I expected every day to be different, and to contribute to research that improves people’s health, with the potential for important breakthroughs. That was, of course, a bit naive, as scientific research is hard work, you need a very high tolerance to frustration and failure, dedication and tenacity and a lot of passion for the topic. After completing my PhD, I worked for 7 years in basic research, testing exciting hypothesis. For some people, contributing to the bigger picture, even though through failure, is very satisfactory, as Edison said, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1000 steps.” But I missed seeing a concrete application for my work.
I wanted to see a tangible result of my research in the form of an innovative product in the market. So, I moved into the nutraceutical industry, still hoping to contribute to human health and wellbeing, and still based on science—but a bit faster track to market, and with more room for creativity and innovation.
The nutraceutical industry can react to consumer needs fast, especially with botanicals combined with insights from documented traditional use and with the knowledge of some experts of our industry which allow us to use a different and more direct research approach. We can look critically at the ethnobotanical use of a plant documented over years, and try to conclude from this knowledge an innovative application of extracts of the plant that may even be patentable. The development of an evidence-based botanical brand is a risky undertaking and needs optimism and serious investment in money, time, science, clinical studies, and marketing. However, the path to market in a few years is feasible if the right experts are on board. And the health solutions are broad, from functional food, supplement, traditional herbal medicine to medical device, all of these options are still much faster and cheaper than the development of a new drug, that takes 10 years and a billion dollar of investment.
After 7 years at Nektium Pharma, a company focused on the development of innovative botanical Brands, and after completing my MBA, I decided to move from research into executive management and to contribute to the natural medicine and pharma world by joining the amazing team of red otc development GmbH, a Finzelberg company, as managing director. Red otc is dedicated to innovation in the healthcare market and my aim is to combine and get the best out of all these science-based worlds, contributing to healthier and happier lives of consumers all over the world.
There are multiple reasons why only a small percentage of scientist, especially in leadership positions, are women. A major difficulty is that the only accepted currency in academia are publications. The number and quality of the publications defines a researcher’s value and future success. This is incompatible with family life, as staying home looking after a baby automatically interrupts work at the lab bench. While young female scientists stay home during this period, their male peers keep working and publishing. When the time comes for an application for a tenure track or a position as professor at the University, women lose out to their male peers due to a lower number of publications—the so called “publication gender gap”—the percentage of articles on which men versus women were first authors. This is where we lose huge future potential and talent.
Recent data show that the publication gender gap widened during the COVID-19 pandemic. At least in part, this is due to lockdown measures, closures of childcare services and schools transferring teaching responsibilities often to mothers. Most of these women won’t catch up and the effect this will have on female careers, at social and economic level, is not clear yet, but according to the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum the time for closure of the general gender gap has increased, from 99.5 years before the pandemic to 135.6 years today. Immediate actions are needed to reduce the long-term impact of the pandemic on the academic advancement of women investigators, because evidence shows that diversity benefits innovative approaches and high research performance. Securing the entry, retention, well-being and progression of women in the science workforce and in the nutraceutical industry must become a priority.
This industry has great knowledgeable women and men, and most of them would happily share their experience if asked. Talking from my experience, I think mentorship could help a lot. I was fortunate when I started in the industry, to find a generous mentor that supported and taught me. I wouldn’t have worked and advanced the same way without my mentor. People with a mentor move forward faster and work happier, they avoid at least some of the pitfalls along the way, and besides, we are never too old to learn. I am convinced that bringing together the right people in mentoring programs could help women advance in our industry.
Further, remote work, flexible working hours or reduced hours help mothers to organize better, to handle both work and family life. At the same time, we all have to avoid the trap of confusing remote work with being always available, this is counterproductive, as work and family life would get blurred too much.
CEOs and company owners have to understand that businesses that actively support gender equality tend to make better business decisions—and ultimately make more money. 50% of the world‘s population are women. Not using this capacity means losing 50% of the available talent, intelligence, creativity, and innovativeness. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, by 2050, improving gender equality would lead to an increase in EU (GDP) per capita by 6.1 to 9.6%, which amounts to €1.95 to €3.15 trillion, and with the growing GDP our industry is growing. By using all of our potential resources, the industry will not only grow faster, but also better."
UN Factoid: In cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, only 22% of professionals are women.
Laura Lopez-Rios, PhD, head of product development, Nektium Pharma
"[I went into the sciences] because I am passionate about understanding how things work. Specifically, the natural sciences seemed to me a great way to work with one of the most beautiful and complicated systems. After my PhD thesis, I worked for many years in clinical research, with a strong focus on diabetes and metabolic syndrome, both closely related to the other big pandemic of overweight and obesity, which has tremendous consequences for our health system. Like all good things, I came to the nutraceutical industry by chance, thanks to a friend. Working as head of product development for nektium pharma gives me the chance to use my knowledge about human physiology to develop botanical solutions and help people to improve their wellbeing and live healthier lives without the use of chemical drugs.
The biggest problem [facing women in science] is family reconciliation. I love my work and I adore my daughters. Unfortunately, today it is still normal that it is the mother who ends up sacrificing her work ambitions for the family. Finding a healthy balance in a marriage is still difficult. Women have to learn to not feel guilty for not always being the ones who takes the children to the doctor, but pass some responsibility over to the fathers. All parents should have the same emotional burden, the same rights, and the same duties. But this is not only true for scientists but for any profession.
We must spread the word and actively invite women to enter the nutraceutical world and facilitate the access through training, showing women how interesting and versatile the industry is, and how many opportunities it holds. This world is our product, it should be promoted in the best possible way."
UN Factoid: While women represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women.
Cynthia Suarez Rizzo, PhD, NPD, Finzelberg GmbH & Co. KG
"I started being fascinated with science as a child, when at age of 8 I did my first experiment in the lab, watching through a microscope and extracting some colors of leaves. After that I started to learn about medicinal plants and chemistry during my bachelor studies. I wanted to work in an international environment and travel to learn more about traditional knowledge of plants and contribute to drug discovery. Therefore, I did my PhD in Molecular Biology of Plants and travelled a lot! All my work path was related to botanicals and the Nutraceutical industry gives me the chance to work from idea to launch. Now, working at Finzelberg, a company where efficacy and science substantiation made a difference, I contribute to bring these products in the market.
The gender gap starts when girls are not encouraged to study science, women need an adequate support to be promoted in scientific research, and scientists should be judged purely on the merit of their discoveries and the potential of their work. Women scientists are leading ground-breaking research across the world but despite their remarkable discoveries, women still represent just 33% of researchers globally.
Women working in the nutraceutical industry must share their experiences and help other counterparts and create a global network that inspires bold leadership. Moreover, leadership trainings—that is complementary to their academic background—are welcome to close the gap in managing positions. The industry needs to use this talent to spark innovation and promote organizational success and drive systemic change."
UN Factoid: Female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers.
Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS, IFT Fellow, principal, Corvus Blue LLC
"As one raised with privilege, I was fortunate to see every festive occasion in our family start with first feeding the disadvantaged. I was barely 3 when I learned that few grew up with an abundance of food, and I resolved then to find a way to feed the world. My idea was to teach people about food and nutrition. Tasty, healthful foods should be a human right and not a privilege.
The ingenuity of my grandmothers and paternal grandfather convinced me that there was always a lotion or potion or some concoction that could heal cuts, soothe upset tummies, vanish skin rashes, and or a bad fever. I learned, as a child, about the magic of plants and foods if used properly and went on to discover this magic by studying the science of botany and the chemistry of natural products. My grandmothers’ culinary skills were astounding, and so was their understanding of the science of taste, food preservation, and physiology. I knew I had to be knowledgeable if I wanted to make this industry truly worthwhile.
The biggest obstacles facing women in science are the sense of belonging and feeling valued.
Regardless of the field, arena (industry or academia), region (developing or developed nations), or career stage (newcomer or seasoned), the systemic lack of respect, authority, and opportunities for women makes it harder for them to succeed. The prevailing gender gap in recognition (for subject matter expertise), awards (from the Nobel Prize to industry awards), funding, leadership, positions, and even involvement in industry events drives this point repeatedly to one who cares to observe. Consider: the positions and recognition given to women versus that given to men at events/publications associated with SupplySide, Expo West, NBJ, and Vitafoods in an industry that relies on women at the production, processing levels, organizing / service levels, and again for purchase decisions and acceptance but do not offer equitable recognition, decision making or compensation to women.
How can the nutraceutical industry become more welcoming to women in science? Help women belong. Make strides toward increased visibility of women at events, in publications, in positions. Evidence shows when women get a stronger sense of belonging when they see other women in high-profile positions. It is important for young people to experience women as mentors, speakers, strong voices, and leaders in their field. Showcase senior and lucrative positions held by women—not just in the United States but around the world. Shine the light on women workers and their sacrifices instead of continually glorifying young and old men and their successes, often garnered for a comparatively smaller price. Our food and nutraceuticals come mostly from other countries. Our industry events and publications should include women from all over the world, so the audience truly understands who carries the burden of their products."