As a female scientist at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), my path to success was not without its challenges. From the time I first turned on a television or opened a book, I was exposed to many examples of scientists and engineers. What I rarely saw were female scientists and engineers. An analysis of children’s media found that for every 15 male characters with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions, only one female character had a STEM job. That’s less than 7%. And in fact, data shows that women only make up 28% of the STEM workforce. We need to change both this perception and the reality.
I’ve witnessed the direct impact of underrepresentation personally. I come from a family of educators, and one of my sisters is a third-grade teacher. One year, she had her students write a letter to a scientist, who, not surprisingly, happened to be me. In addition to writing me a letter and including a couple of questions on what it’s like to be a scientist, they were asked to draw a picture of what they thought a scientist would look like. Out of the 24 students, 23 of them drew a picture of a man, even though they knew they were writing to me, a female scientist and their teacher’s sister. I believe this illustrates an unconscious bias in our society, a bias which informed their choice to embrace the “male scientist” stereotype, a stereotype that may go on to deter many young women from considering careers in STEM.
Stemming the Tide of Inequality
We at BMS are acutely aware of the need to provide a more accessible path for women and girls to find careers in STEM so we can shed the stereotype of the “male scientist” and make the field more inclusive. I strongly believe that engaging students early in scientific subjects is the key to building their future, and quite frankly, the key to sustaining ours. It’s important to get kids at a young age thinking about the world around them, becoming curious about how and why things work and asking questions. Then we need to inspire them to have the drive to investigate those questions, seek answers and continue to experiment and push the boundaries. When we can help students connect those traits to their schoolwork and academic interests, then we have a chance to lead them on a path toward the critically needed areas of scientific study and research that could benefit patients for generations to come.
At BMS here in Washington state, we are focused on continued leadership in the rapidly developing cell therapy field. But even as one of the hotbeds for biopharma, the demand for scientific and bioengineering talent in the Seattle area outpaces the number of qualified graduates. For BMS, as a global leader in this space, we feel an urgency to address this imbalance by helping women and girls recognize they are qualified to seize these opportunities in STEM and empower them to pursue educational and career pathways in the sciences. This will help us to build the workforce of the future that will be ready to tackle the next wave of challenges in medicine and help more women find their place in that workforce.
There are many intelligent, passionate female scientists in our industry, but representation throughout the industry, especially across senior and executive levels, still has a long way to go. That’s why we are committed to inspiring the next generation of female scientists and engineers and are actively spearheading STEM education initiatives from kindergarten all the way through college graduation. These programs provide educational tools, hands-on experience and financial support for young students as well as those in higher education. The messages students receive during their early education will influence their future decisions, so we want to ensure that girls are being shown positive examples of STEM career pathways throughout their schooling.
A few years ago, I became involved with our “Scientist for a Day” program, which for younger girls, enables them to participate in experiments and explore scientific topics and ideas outside their regular curriculum. For older girls, we have workshop dialogues that focus on our BMS day-to-day research activities, so they can learn more about what’s behind the abstract-sounding job description, “cancer researcher,” and start to think about what a career pursuing work in STEM might really look like. Then, for college to postgraduate students, we dive deeper into how they can connect their specific research interests to the multitude of career opportunities that await them. We’re also building relationships with schools and universities, offering invaluable industry mentorship programs and expanding our scholarship initiatives for low- and middle-income students who are pursing high-demand professions.
Until we prioritize educating children at an earlier age about how interesting science is, how important and relevant it is in our society, and what careers can be pursued with a science education, the potential of these students will remain largely unrealized, as will the potential for our industry to discover, develop and deliver innovative new medicines to people who need them to treat serious diseases. If our collective efforts can serve as a model for these careers and offer young women a blueprint, we can build their confidence and interest in STEM professions and continue to narrow the gap in gender representation in our industry.
Opening New Doors
When I was in college and thinking about scientific careers, I had very few resources pointing
me to what I could actually do with a science degree. When I was growing up, my only role model in a science-related field was my mom, who was a nurse. For that reason, I believed that becoming a physician was the only possible path open for me or anyone interested in science. I had no reference point on what other kinds of careers might be available.
Today, a student with an interest in science may wonder: What kind of education and training do I need? What will my career options be? How do I get from here to there? Even today, as I talk to college students, some of whom are pursuing more advanced degrees, many have little or no idea what careers beyond academia may be available.
What I’ve found is that having a mentor can really open students’ minds to the possibilities that they may never have previously considered.
When I meet with girls and young women, the main barrier I focus on overcoming is opening their mind to what they may perceive as too difficult or too inaccessible about the scientific field. My hope is that by relating to the individuals I talk to, and connecting through real experiences, I may help them recognize the possibilities for them in STEM. To make that authentic connection, it’s important that they relate to me as a real person. The last thing I want to do is appear like some unapproachable senior executive at a huge biopharmaceutical company. So, when talking with middle-school girls, for example, I’ll purposely wear a jean jacket to appear more relatable, and maybe even, a little cooler than they think I am. With a little patience and nurturing, we can take down the barriers and open new doors for girls and women in STEM, doors that can lead to meaningful and important careers that benefit both the individual and our society.
Speaking from Experience: Challenges That Inspire Growth
I’ve had the experience of being the only woman in a room full of men on many occasions in my career, so I’m able to address underrepresentation from first-hand experience. When you’re the only woman in a meeting (or at best, one of a very few), you may focus on that one obvious fact, instead of on the many reasons you deserve to be there. It took multiple experiences, rigorous preparation as well as support from my colleagues for me to fully realize the unique value, insights and perspective I offered in such situations. In time, I recognized that I was the best person to represent my work. (After all, if you’re not the best person to represent your work, who is?) When I speak with female scientists, I give them this advice: Be confident in who you are and what you bring to the table, regardless of who else is at that table.
Over the course of my career, I’ve accepted positions in specific areas where I had to learn more and contribute my expertise to a new therapeutic area. Unfamiliarity can be daunting, but I wouldn’t be here without mentors encouraging me to tap into my leadership qualities, and I wish to pass that support and encouragement on to others. 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 your skills. Reevaluate what you’re capable of, pursue higher career development and command what you deserve, especially in a field where you are the minority. When you know your worth, others will recognize it, too.
Numbers don’t lie: Data shows that women make up a mere 28% of the STEM workforce, and they encounter barriers to these fields early on, long before a young woman has the opportunity to choose a career or major in college. As a female scientist, I’m excited to be working with BMS on their vital mission of improving STEM education and career paths for women. Together, we’re doing everything possible to bring down limiting barriers, so women can rise to positions that reflect their promise, their passion and their potential.
Teri Foy is an immunologist with more than 25 years of experience in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. She currently leads the BMS Immuno-Oncology and Cell Therapy Thematic Research Center, where her team focuses on developing immune effector cell-based therapies for hematological and solid cancers. As part of her research, Teri also oversees close collaborations with other key research areas across the company, as well as external scientific partnerships. She is the recent recipient of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Luminary Award and has been recognized for her commitment to supporting and advancing the careers of women in the healthcare industry. Teri is a prominent advocate and mentor for STEM education in the Seattle area.