In pursuit of more female scientists: Breaking barriers for women in STEM

April 29, 2021     
By Teresa (Teri) Foy, Ph.D., senior vice president, Research and Early Development Immuno-Oncology and Cell Therapy

About the author: Teri Foy, Ph.D., senior vice president, Research and Early Development Immuno-Oncology and Cell Therapy, has a broad range of experience in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries and currently leads the Immuno-Oncology and Cell Therapy Thematic Research Center, where her team focuses on developing immune effector cell-based therapies for hematological and solid cancers.

Foy is a recent recipient of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Luminary Award and has been recognized for her commitment to supporting and advancing the careers of other women in the healthcare industry. She actively participates in several initiatives that support women in their career development, including Women in Bio programming and the Women in Tech Regatta. Foy is a strong advocate for women in STEM and frequently meets and presents to girls and women at schools in the Seattle, Washington, area; she is a leader to her peers and a role model for students looking to break into the biopharmaceutical field. 

From the time we first turn on a television or read a book, we’re exposed to examples of scientists and engineers. What we often don’t see are female scientists and engineers. In fact, an analysis of children’s media found that for every 15 male characters with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions, there was only one female character with a STEM job.

I’ve seen the direct impact of that underrepresentation personally. My sister, a third-grade teacher, once asked her students to write a letter to a scientist (me) and draw a picture of what a scientist looks like on the back of the letter. Out of the 24 letters I received, 23 students drew a male scientist. Let that sink in – they knew I was a female, but their unconscious bias still guided their hand to sketch the STEM stereotype.

Data shows that women only make up 28% of the STEM workforce. The barriers to these fields are raised long before a young woman has the opportunity to choose a career or major in college.

As a scientist, I can’t ignore all the data that supports the gender bias hindering female progress in STEM. But I know that I can help at a community level. I come from a family of educators and hold a strong belief that engaging students early in science is critical to building the future. We can make kids more aware of these areas of study and where they can lead them in a future career. 

When I speak with female scientists, I advise them to be confident in who they are and what they bring to the table, regardless of who else is at that table.

Connecting with students to show them what’s possible

Coming from a large company like Bristol Myers Squibb with dedicated and enthusiastic scientists, we’ve been able to spearhead a number of STEM initiatives in Seattle—providing educational tools, hands-on experience and financial support for young students as well as those in higher education. The messages students receive during their K-12 education influence their future decisions, so we want to ensure girls are being shown positive examples of STEM jobs.

A few years ago, I became involved with our “Scientist for a Day” program, which empowers children to participate in experiments and explore scientific topics and ideas. Once they get a little older, we have workshop dialogs around our day-to-day activities, as the job “cancer researcher” can be an abstract concept to students. Then, for college to postgraduate students, we can dive deeper into how they reach the multitude of career opportunities. Many may have only considered an academic path because they’ve never seen a career in industry modeled for them.

When talking with students, and especially young women and girls, the main barrier I focus on overcoming is opening someone’s mind to what they thought was going to be too hard or inaccessible. My hope is that by relating to the individuals I talk to and connecting through experiences, I may help them recognize the possibilities in STEM. With a little patience and nurturing, we can open new doors for girls.

As passionate as I am about STEM, I’m equally focused on trying to increase gender parity in the STEM fields. There are many intelligent, passionate female scientists in our industry, but representation across senior and executive levels still has a long way to go. It’s important that we continue to push for change to increase the number of women in leadership roles within science careers.

I have first-hand experience is this area, having been the only woman in a room full of men on many occasions in my career. Often, that can cause you to concentrate on the fact that you are the “only” instead of the many reasons you deserve to be there. It took multiple experiences, preparation and support from my colleagues to be able to fully realize my value and recognize that I was the best person to represent my work. When I speak with female scientists, I advise them to be confident in who they are and what they bring to the table, regardless of who else is at that table.

The benefits of challenges

At different times in my career, I accepted positions in distinct areas where I had to learn more and contribute my expertise to a new therapeutic area. I wouldn’t be here without mentors encouraging me to tap into my leadership qualities, and I wish to pass that on. Even if you are still growing in your career, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself to take on a role that will require you to stretch your knowledge and skills. Investing in good people is one of the most important facets of a company. Re-evaluate what you’re capable of, pursue higher career development and command what you deserve, especially in a male-dominated field.

Women and girls need to recognize they are qualified to seize opportunities in STEM, and then act on it by pursuing educational and career opportunities to make it a reality. If our collective efforts can model these careers and build female confidence and interest in STEM professions, we can expand female representation in the sciences. And that works to the benefit of all involved.

How to mentor the next generation of scientists

Mentoring can take many forms. Here are some ways to get involved:

  • Explore the mentorship opportunities available at your company
  • Volunteer for STEM initiatives in your local community or school district
  • Contact your university alumni association to offer career advice to current students
  • Share your STEM experience with a friend or family member’s child
  • Start or sponsor a new event encouraging interest in STEM

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