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Ada Lovelace Day 2021: Women in STEM and non-animal research

Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It aims to increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more young women into STEM careers and support women already working in the sectors.

In recognition of ALD, we look at the gender balance in STEM and speak to Professor Judith Madden, editor-in-chief of FRAME’s scientific journal, ATLA, and Professor of In Silico Chemical Assessment at Liverpool John Moores University, about her career and development in the life sciences industry and find out what can be done to help more women get into STEM.

Key statistics: at a glance

Women make up just 24% of STEM employees in the UK1, with sectors such as engineering having a workforce that is just 11% women.2 Whilst underrepresented in most other STEM fields, women make up 49% of the global life sciences workforce.3 However, with women comprising just 10 percent of boards and only 20 percent of leadership teams, despite the fact half of entry level positions are filled by women,4 it is clear there is still a gender diversity issue when it comes to women’s career progression and having the right support to attain and retain senior leadership roles.

The field of non-animal research encompasses not just life sciences in the practical sense, and working with cells and tissue in the lab, but also the full spectrum of STEM subjects, with computing, engineering, mathematics and artificial intelligence (AI) each playing a key role in alternatives research and development – for example, within in silico (computational) methods and organ-on-a-chip technology.

According to data from the World Economic Forum, women fill just 22% of global AI jobs, whilst men account for 78%.5 Data also suggests that, although the field of AI professionals has grown substantially over the last four years, the percentage of women in AI remains low. Gender bias in AI can be a real issue, namely due to the way systems are trained. Without a substantial contribution from women, there is a risk that machine learning tools will end up with biases baked in.6

It is therefore crucial that we understand the barriers that exist for women in STEM. We should consider how to engage and inspire talented women to pursue careers in the scientific industries and see senior leadership as an accessible opportunity.

Interview: breaking down barriers

Dr Judith Madden
Professor Judith Madden

Judith Madden is Professor of in Silico Chemical Assessment in the Chemoinformatics research group at Liverpool John Moores University, as well as editor-in-chief of FRAME’s scientific journal, Alternatives to Laboratory Animals (ATLA).

We spoke to Judith to learn more about her background and career path, the barriers she encountered as a woman in STEM, and her perspective on what can be done to encourage, motivate and support female scientists to help them reach their full potential.

What is your academic background and how did you first get into looking at alternatives to animals in scientific and medical research?

“Both of my parents were scientists working as medical laboratory scientific officers in various hospitals, so I always knew I wanted a career in science. I completed a dual honours degree in Chemistry and Pharmacology at the University of Sheffield in 1991 before beginning a PhD in Quantitative Structure Activity Relationships (QSAR) at Liverpool John Moores University.

“QSAR uses knowledge of a chemical’s structure and properties to make predictions about how it will interact with a biological system. I find it fascinating that the potential for chemical-biological interactions is somehow encoded within the chemical structure and that better understanding of the structure and properties of chemicals, plus analysing patterns in data for these interactions, enables us to make predictions for chemicals we know little about.

“Ever since, I have been investigating the potential of in silico models to better understand interactions at the chemical-biological interface and how this knowledge can be used to reduce or replace animal testing.”

Do you feel you faced any barriers to working in STEM, and how did you overcome these?

“I can recall my earliest barrier being the fact I attended an all-girls school in the 80s where I was strongly discouraged from taking three science O-Levels (GCSEs). Girls who wanted to do A-Level science had to take some classes in the nearby ‘all boys’ school as our school did not have the facilities.

“One of the biggest successes and signs of progress since that time is how science is now so actively promoted as an excellent and promising career for women and girls. It is great to see more initiatives in this area, specifically targeted at increasing women in STEM.

“Some of the later barriers I encountered relate to balancing care responsibilities – particularly childcare – with full-time work. Maintaining a research profile plus teaching and admin is a challenge for both men and women, but traditionally women have faced more difficulties with this. What is important is having an understanding and supportive environment both personally and professionally to help overcome these sorts of challenges.

“As a woman in academia, it is very apparent that, even for those subjects where there is a reasonable gender balance in early career stages, the senior positions are much more often occupied by men, in later career stages. I became a professor last year and a significant factor that helped me to achieve this was the advice and support of a (female) mentor.”

What do you think could help more women get into STEM subjects and careers, including senior roles?

“Fundamentally, changing attitudes towards women in STEM is a gradual process. Whilst, undoubtedly, progress has been made, there is a way to go yet. As with many things in the world that require a fundamental change in attitude, it is getting the message across to younger people that is key. Ensuring young women and girls are aware of all the opportunities a career in science can offer, and empowering them with the belief that this is something they can achieve if they want to, is crucial to changing the outlook for future generations. Providing the younger generation with visibility of relatable role models can also have a significant, positive influence on increasing women in STEM. In later career development, strong mentorship can provide great support for women aspiring to leadership or board positions.”

Carving out a career in the life sciences

Here at FRAME, we appreciate the importance of diversity at all levels and the value of considering a variety of different voices, experiences, opinions and perspectives in all areas of scientific research. Through our education, training and funding opportunities, we aim to nurture a diverse set of alternatives researchers of the future by encouraging them to develop their skills and knowledge and see the potential for a rewarding and successful career in STEM. 

For more information about what we do, and how we can support early career scientists, please click here.

For further insights, advice and resources, visit the STEM Women and Women in STEM websites.


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