Conversations around women in STEM can center around their absence.
But while they may be less visible in the upper reaches, there are swathes of extraordinary women radically changing their industries, both locally and around the world.
“There are plenty of potential role models out there,” Petra Andrén, CEO of Cicada Innovations said.
“But they are still far too rarely seen.”
Petra, along with Anna Lavelle, Katherine Giles, Sam Cobb and Kylie Walker, are just five such women.
A position as the CEO of Cicada Innovations, a deep technology incubator and the country’s only “super innovator”, is not what one might expect from someone whose first degree was in linguistics and communications.
But Petra Andrén says an ability to synthesise complicated concepts and make them tangible is key to creating life-changing biotechnologies.
“My talent lies in understanding complex technologies across a wide variety of industries and making them accessible and understandable to your average Joe (or Jane!) who will benefit from the end product,” she said.
“I firmly believe in the convergence of technologies and multidisciplinary approaches to problem solving – this also includes building gender diverse teams – as there is ample research demonstrating the superior outcomes achieved by diverse versus homogenous teams. Despite this, there are few people making the effort to address this. So at Cicada we make a conscious effort to promote diversity across technology, discipline and gender.”
It is a skill set, and a philosophy, that has seen the incubator go from strength to strength. Owned by four of Australia’s top universities – the University of Sydney, UTS, UNSW and ANU, it houses “over 400 of Australia’s sharpest minds” and, under her leadership, is producing work of an international standard.
“Cicada is well on its way to becoming a world exemplar for fostering deep technology companies that are taking on the most pressing challenges facing our world today, such as climate change and food security, to name just a few,” she said.
And while her success has not inoculated her against sexism in the industry, she feels optimistic about the future.
“I personally experience gender inequality on a daily basis,” she said, “but having that awareness of unconscious bias – as well as having great supporters – helps give me the clarity needed to call it out.”
Reflecting on a career in business, science and biotech, all famously male dominated professions, Anna Lavelle said, “You can only get change when people are talking.”
It has been her ability to get people talking that has been integral to her glittering career. Among a host of impressive roles, she was previously the CEO of AusBiotech, and is currently the Chair of Australia’s national digital health initiative ANDHealth, where she has shown her unique ability to connect scientists, programmers and investors in the public and private sectors.
During her time at AusBiotech she was the only Australian to be named by Scientific American Worldview as one of the 100 most influential people in global life sciences. The list placed her in good company, appearing alongside Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as other renowned scientists.
But she says that it’s her current position at ANDHealth that she’s been training for “her whole life.”
After completing a PhD in molecular biology, she spent a number of years working as an academic at Monash.
“I needed more cut and thrust, more negotiations. I wanted the outcomes, I wanted to do great science translated into useful legacy for the community and that's where biotech, medtech and the pharmaceutical industry really comes into its fore.”
In her role at ANDHealth, her goals of producing meaningful scientific research have certainly come to fruition. The organisation has begun work with their first cohort of companies that have each been given a $60,000 grant and access to industry experts who promise to help them develop and commercialise their innovations.
The technology, she said, is set to radically change the way people access life-changing medical care.
“They are a really interesting mix, looking at products that are going to take the clinician one step away from the health consumer.”
“There's a whole range of things that means that we can reach into people's lounge rooms in a way that just was not possible in the past.”
Despite her talents in science and business, Anna’s career has not been without its challenges.
“In my entire career I've always worked in male dominated areas. In my first job I was the only female academic in the department and I was very often one of the more senior women in the environment that I worked in. And yes, I did face discrimination and, yes, there was sexism,” she said.
“I think that I had to work a little bit smarter and a bit harder than some of my colleagues to get to the same place.”
These challenges, which speak to the experiences of many women working in male dominated fields, have been a double edged sword.
“The upside is that you're really good at decision making, you are resilient, you know your strengths and weaknesses, you've had them tested, so you're pretty confident about what you can do. That's the upside. And the downside is a lot of extra energy, a lot of stress and worry about performance that really you didn't need, and that you could have done without.”
For most people, a career as a surgeon would be considered a fairly high achievement. But for Katherine Giles, it serves as a single component of a far larger career. She has completed an MBA and while she still “helps out” as a surgeon is the CEO of OncoRes, a company working to radically change the way in which breast cancer is treated.
“OncoRes is a venture backed company and we’re developing a device to be used by surgeons to translate the surgeon's sense of touch into a digital image,” Giles said.
“The problem that we are hoping to solve is the problem of unnecessary surgery for women with breast cancer. Luckily today we're diagnosing breast cancer a lot earlier which means that around 70 per cent of women can just get the lump taken out. The problem is that in 30 per cent of women not all cancer is removed at the time of surgery, and we don't find that out for two weeks because that's how long it takes the pathology results to come in. And therefore 30 per cent of women need to go back to have further surgery to make sure all the tumours are removed.”
It’s a costly and risky process for both patients and hospitals, and it’s a problem that OncoRes is close to solving.
“We have made great progress with regard to the technical and clinical development to date and are looking to raise a Series B round of investment late in 2018 to fund our device development through to initial regulatory approval.”
It’s progress that speaks to Giles’s desire to make a broader impact in medicine.
“If we're successful in what we do we have the ability to have a positive impact on patient health care and on a much greater scale than there is on a one-to-one basis doctor-to-patients. So I love the fact that I get to work on something that has that end in mind.”
Giles is also optimistic about the future visibility of women in STEM and their achievements.
“I was on a panel last week and it was incredible because it was a panel that was all women talking about technology and there was no talk about the fact that we're all women. I do find that sometimes when you do get on a panel it's around diversity and not actually what you do. But the person who moderated that panel, who was not a woman, made a conscious effort that that's what he wanted to achieve with it.”
As the founding CEO of ASX listed company ADAlta, Sam Cobb was well prepared for a career at the intersection of science and big business.
After completing a degree in biotechnology, followed by a law degree, Sam worked for a number of startups, developing an interest in commercialisation early in her career.
“From the University of Queensland I really saw a breadth of early stage technologies, and I was involved in the commercialisation of them, raising funding for them, trying to get partnerships in terms of pharma interested in the science.”
Founding AdAlta closely mirrored the experiences she had early in her career.
“Starting AdAlta came from seeing an early stage technology that really needed to be developed further and [it needed] funding to do that,” Cobb said.
There is certainly need for the technology she is working to develop. AdAlta is developing a lead i-body candidate for the treatment of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, for which there is currently no cure.
“If you're diagnosed with this disease, 50 per cent of people will die within two to three years.”
“At the moment there are two available treatments, there’s pirfenidone and nintedanib. They work in about 30 per cent of people and I guess you either respond to them or you don’t. They’ve got significant side effects and they really just slow the disease down, they’re not a cure.”
“About as many people die from IPF every year as they do from breast cancer. It’s just an untreated disease.”
Her background is science has proved invaluable as the business continues to grow. In 2018 i-body begins its clinical trial.
“When I go into present to investors, particularly in the US and overseas, they really want to delve into the science,” she said. Her scientific knowledge, combined with her business acumen place AdAlta in good stead.
“One of our closest competitors was acquired last month for $6.1 billion, so we've got the novel technology which we think has a real niche. So our focus is, and what we're really excited about doing, is growing the company developing the i-body pipeline so that we can invest in new products where there is an unmet medical need.”
Kylie Walker’s stunning career segue has seen her go from reporting on the innovators to being one herself. The CEO of Science and Technology Australia, which represents over 70,000 Australian scientists and technologists, she is also the Chair of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO.
But at university Walker studied politics, communications and creative writing, a skill set she said is surprisingly relevant to her two decidedly science-based jobs.
“I've always been a bit of a fan of science and medical science in particular and indeed as a journalist my dream job was to be the national medical correspondent for Australia, which I was able to do for a while. I also worked in the press gallery and was the national correspondent for health and science and women's issues, and from there it sort of seems to be a logical step to start to work with medical sector NGOs and peak bodies.”
As CEO of STA, her knowledge of politics and skills as a communicator are particularly useful.
“My role as CEO is very much as a connector. We provide professional development and then we provide opportunities for people in the science and technology sector to use that so they can advocate more effectively for their work.”
In her experience in multiple leadership roles, she has found that an emphasis on the visibility of women is key to greater diversity within the field. She has developed the Superstars of STEM program with STA, which has seen massive success in elevating the visibility of women in science and technology.
“Social science tells us that role modelling is incredibly important in people's decision making processes. So as children, we need to know that these various paths are possibilities for us. And the best way we know that these are possibilities for us is if someone has done it before and has told the world about it,” Walker said.
“We also know that unfortunately only around 11 per cent of quotes in the news media attributed to scientists are attributed to women. So women don't have a huge and visible presence as scientists in the news media. On social media, and I'll talk about Twitter in particular, only 8 per cent of the most followed scientists on Twitter are women.”
To combat this, the Superstars of STEM gives high achieving women at the start of their careers opportunities to develop their skills, as well as giving them media training and targets.
“All of the people on the program have had a really comprehensive training in professional communication skills, in news media, in social media. So writing, speaking on stage, storytelling and personal presentation, communication. But they're not only getting the training, they're also being helped to use the training, and where possible we are creating the opportunities for them to use the training.”
The “Superstars” have appeared on a variety of media outlets, including the ABC’s 7.30, the Nine Network’s Today Show and SBS World News. Their social media followings have also swelled. Next year the program will double its capacity, further amplifying the voices of promising women in STEM.
“The more power we give women and the more equality and the more dignity and visibility you give to women in positions of power, the less room there is for people who would seek to abuse women,” she said.