Blog: The 30% Club Report & Women in Life Sciences

In this blog, Dr. Gemma Robinson looks at the recent 30% Club report and the similarities that can be drawn between the financial services and life sciences sector in attracting and retaining female participation in the workforce. What can be done to encourage more women to stay in life sciences and progress to senior management roles?

Last week’s publication of the 30% Club’s report on the gap between the number of men represented on the boards of financial services companies versus the numbers of women represented got me thinking. I think that there is a similar issue in the life sciences sector.

The 30% Club, if you are not aware of their great work, is a global campaign that aims to achieve a minimum of 30% female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 and other boards.  The Irish chapter of the organisation has a goal of 30% female representation in senior management roles by 2020.  Their recent report showed a 50/50 split between men and women at entry level and on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder.  It then showed a chasm opening up as careers progressed to the extent that 87% of CEO’s in the financial services sector were men and only 13% were female.

While the report focused on financial services, many of its findings are applicable across other sectors.  Issues regarding the flexibility of working arrangements and self-confidence were looked at by the study.  Issues, again, that are not unique to financial services.

In the survey 43% of those surveyed stated that availing of flexible working arrangements would lead to their commitment to their organisation being questioned.  In an environment where commitment to a company might be questioned by availing of the flexible working arrangements supplied by the company there really is only one option and that is to leave.  It might mean leaving to join another company and it might mean opting out of the workforce.  Nevertheless, the departure will be detrimental to the company.  More often than not, and experience has borne this out, it is more likely that the individual opting out will be female.  (Census 2016 figures in Ireland showed that the number of stay at home fathers in the country was 9,200.  The number of stay at home mothers was 445,500).

When someone in the life sciences sector opts out, they deplete an already challenging pool of talent. So, what can we as company owners, business leaders and board members do to stem the outward flow of female talent and to encourage them to stay and progress their careers while enabling them to lead their lives?

Firstly, we as a sector, need to do more to encourage the uptake of flexible working arrangements.  Above, I referred to individuals feeling ill at ease availing of flexible working arrangements that are offered by their employers.  We, as employers, need to ensure that employees see flexibility as an option and one that is on a par with being in the company’s offices between 9am and 5pm.  The world of work has changed immeasurably in the last 20 years and our approach to work and how it gets done needs to change accordingly.  The prevalence of cloud systems and the multitude of means of communication at all of our disposal means that those of us that choose to work remotely or flexibly should not really be at any disadvantage in the workplace.

After all, that is what we at Acorn Regulatory did a number of years ago.  Our organisation moved to a cloud based system in 2011 to facilitate flexible and remote working arrangements.  Doing so has enabled us to retain and attract experienced personnel who might otherwise have departed to join another company that better suited their lifestyle needs or who might have opted out of the workforce entirely.  However, the act of introducing these measures is not the end solution.  As a colleague often says “life gets in the way” and we constantly work with our team to facilitate their arrangements while working with our global client list.

We are a growing company.  However, I know that we won’t get to where we want to be without the talented pool of people that we already have.  To do that we have to be flexible and considerate of the demands placed upon them outside of their working lives.

Furthermore, we must do more as a life sciences sector to demonstrate that there is more to science than just the lab and the factory floor.  We need to shine a light on the myriad roles that make this industry one of the most important sectors in the Irish economy.  By doing that we might end the disconnect where 62% of students taking the Leaving Certificate Biology exam are female, 56% of those taking the Chemistry exam are female and only 25% of the 118,000 people working in STEM in Ireland are female.  (You can read more about the DCU study on Women in Life Sciences here).

Essentially it comes down to this: business culture needs to change.  While companies adopt policies and initiatives they need to have real resonance within their organisation.  Too often policies are introduced because competitors have them or they form part of a checklist of policies that companies must have.  Employees need to be able to avail of flexible working policies without fear of damaging their standing within a company.  If we can fix this, then we can hold on to talented female members of staff and they can better compete for senior roles.

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