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'Gender parity is the driver for industry innovation and business success' - Julia Wiebe [Interview]

Article-'Gender parity is the driver for industry innovation and business success' - Julia Wiebe [Interview]

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Long-term business success is directly correlated with gender parity, which is why helping women break through glass ceilings is a main objective of the recently formed non-profit Women In Nutraceuticals (WIN) group.

Julia Wiebe is managing director at Finzelberg-owned red otc and director at large of Women In Nutraceuticals, a non-profit industry organisation that seeks to champion and empower women in the health and supplement sector.

We caught up with Julia to discuss some of the main challenges that Women In Nutraceuticals faces, and why gender parity must be implemented across the sector, from clinical trials to product development.

You have held a variety of positions in both the academic and corporate worlds, such as associate professor of physiology and biochemistry at the University of Las Palmas in Spain and chief scientific officer at Nektium Pharma. What specific skillsets do women in leadership roles bring?

“Female leaders often look at things from a broader perspective, and include interpersonal relationships and employee needs in their decision-making process. Especially when building teams, it helps to see beyond the purely technical skillset of people, to visualize the dynamics and synergies between different mindsets in the team.

“The female leadership style is based on clearly defined tasks and responsibilities. It is perseverant and may be more risk-adverse than male decision makers. This ability helps female leaders to motivate and inspire their teams, and to create the trust needed to avoid micromanagement and be able to focus on the bigger picture.

“Women in leadership positions are aware of their role model function, they understand that diversity makes companies more profitable and the industry stronger, therefore coaching and mentoring women on their way to C-suites and company boards is a fundamental activity for the Women in Nutraceuticals team.”

What work is the Women In Nutraceuticals group doing to empower and support women in this sector?

“Most female leaders know how it feels to be pushed to the second row, be passed over in a male-dominated environment, or have their ideas appropriated. They have experienced how important having a network is and this motivates many female leaders to invest time in the mentoring of young women.

“On the other side, at the beginning of their career, many women are not aware which skills are needed to succeed, do not know how to get funding, how to keep up with male competitors in academia, or how to find their way into leadership positions in male-dominated workforces.

“WIN’s mission is to support women in the industry through training and mentoring, to help them overcome glass walls and glass ceilings, and pave the way to the C-suite and onto boards. [In this way, WIN can] improve the nutraceutical industry, make companies more successful, and increase their innovative potential, which is the driver for long-term success and directly correlated with gender parity.”

Many nutraceutical companies may wish to support their female employees attain leadership roles but don’t know where to start. Do you have any practical advice for first steps?

“A lot can be done, starting with identifying women that want to take on a leadership role. If a woman turns down a career advancement opportunity, or does not apply for a new role, there may be many reasons. [This may be] due to feeling unprepared; women tend to only apply for a position once they fulfil all the selection criteria, whereas men tend to risk an application if they fulfil the majority – but not all – of the job requirements.

“Or it may be [due to] the double-burden break. Many women decide against a professional career because of the double-burden of job and household. [...] The work environment sends this message too: family obligations or maternity leave involving a break from the workplace eventually become a hurdle for promotion.

“Coaching and mentoring are the most effective ways of addressing women’s lower confidence and lesser ambition, and protecting them from burn-out once promoted. Companies can also support and leverage their female talent pool through systematic planning, flexible working hours, home-office, family friendly conditions, and childcare facilities.”

Women are the primary consumers of nutraceuticals yet, historically, they have often been ignored in research studies, with many nutrition trials involving only men. Is this changing and what is needed to bring about change faster?

“Women are not only the primary consumers of nutraceuticals, they also are the gatekeepers for the family’s nutraceutical consumption by controlling 73% of household spending decisions, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

“Today, researchers are conscious of the need to enrol more women in clinical trials, but progress is slow. As a consequence, women are still at greater risk of adverse side effects from medications due to a lack of female representation in clinical trials. A recent review [by Zucker et al, 2020] reported that in more than 90% of cases, when given the same pharmaceutical drug dosage as men, women experienced stronger side effects than men and experienced adverse drug reactions at nearly twice the rate of men. The gender differences in efficacy and side-effect profiles for nutraceuticals needs to be explored in clinical studies.

“Including women in clinical research isn’t just a gesture to gender parity — it is the law. Since 1993, US drug trials and clinical research require female participants. In Europe, the subjects participating in a clinical trial should represent the population groups that will use the medicinal product studied in the clinical trial, while exclusion of certain groups has to be justified.

“Apart from legislation, some scientific journals refuse to publish studies if women were excluded without good reason. The general rise of female participants in clinical trials is promising, however, as of today, women are still underrepresented as research participants. More women need to be included in clinical studies, especially in early phase studies, where we learn about the safety of the drug or nutraceutical and the pharmacokinetics of the major active.”

What areas of women’s health are currently being ignored or underserved?

“Looking at the nutraceutical industry, female athletes started demanding products for women some years ago, rejecting the ‘shrink it and pink it’ approach to feminising products developed for males. The differences in the female and male physiology are obvious and easy to communicate, and the market has reacted to a growing interest in women-specific workout products.

“Apart from products for physical energy, the interest in mental health and mental energy has been skyrocketing in recent years, due to an ageing population and increasing stress levels in all age groups. Products for memory, concentration, and focus are in great demand by both sexes, and the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in much greater levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Female consumers are looking for experiential supplements that improve mood and fatigue, and alleviate stress and anxiety.”