Gender equity in STEM

Earlier this year, International Women’s Day focused on Gender Equity. Gender Equity is the idea that although we can’t enforce equal outcomes, we can ensure that everyone, irrelevant of gender, has access to equal opportunities, resources and rewards. This June, International Women in Engineering Day takes place on the 23rd, promoting the amazing work that women engineers across the globe are doing with a focus on those who #MakeSafetySeen. According to INWED, figures from 2021 indicated that just 16.5% of engineers in the UK are women, and the latest US statistics indicate that women currently make up only 33% of the workforce in pharmaceutical engineering.

Within the life science industry, we’re starting to see a shift. Our clients are now looking to make sure that they are creating more opportunities for all genders to grow and develop their careers with the aim of having more diverse leadership teams. However, there is still have a long way to go to inspire the next generation of women to pursue pharmaceutical engineering roles.

Blackfield Associates is hoping to help inspire the next generation of engineers by speaking with leaders in pharmaceutical engineering who will share their stories on how they got to where they are today and the challenges they faced.

Introducing Rachel Miles

Our first interview is with Rachel Miles who is currently working for Abbott in their Global Engineering team as a Senior Project Manager. Rachel has run projects from $50,000 to $500m in value across multiple industries, starting in the food space and moving into pharmaceutical engineering. She has worked with some of the biggest names in life sciences and has a real passion for gender equity and the overall fair treatment of women in the workplace.

Rachel provided us with her perspective on inclusivity within the industry from how raised her family alongside her career, to how she has been treated in the past working as a contractor compared to a full-time employee.

Rachel chose a career in engineering following a conversation with her father and his friend who was working as an engineer. Following the conversation, Rachel felt motivated and really wanted to make sure her education was aligned with where she wanted her career to go. Naturally, she turned to her high school guidance counsellor, however, the reception from him was not as she would have hoped.

“I told him, ‘Hey, I really think I’m gonna go be an engineer.’ He looked right at me (now understand this man was probably two years away from retiring, so he’s old school) and he said, ‘Girls don’t become engineers. You should learn to cut hair.”

Far from being deterred, this comment made Rachel even more determined to pursue her dream. One of her role models was her grandmother. During World War II, whilst the men went to fight, the women were left to ensure that the manufacturing of ammunition continued. Rachel’s grandmother, a single mother of one, became a Machinist and, unusually for the time, she remained in this role long after the War ended, until she retired. For Rachel, she was a prime example of a woman working in a man’s world. She knew from her grandmother’s story that the attitudes of those who believed that ‘girls don’t become engineers’ were wrong, and she is now living proof of this.

‘Good ol’ boys’ club

Rachel began her career in facilities for an OEM company, then moved into Tobacco and Food manufacturing, which is where she gained her first Project Management experience. Having developed her career in these industries, she made the decision for her family to relocate to Michigan, and this is where she moved into biopharmaceutical manufacturing projects.

Throughout multiple company take-overs and mass layoffs, Rachel kept her role as a Project Manager. Ending up as one of a team of just 11 from an original 60, she noticed that she had managed to become the only female Project Manager at this company. She experienced comments from her colleagues which were less than encouraging…

“I believe the word that got said to me was ‘handicapped’ because my husband also travelled for work and I had small children. At this point, this was the mindset of most of the people I was working with who had wives at home who took on the childcare.”

The divide between Rachel and her colleagues become more apparent as the men would go out for drinks after work or go golfing on the weekend, outings that she would not be invited to due to nothing more than her gender. This was a long time ago and Rachel does admit that things have got a lot better in current society, with more inclusivity action’ being carried out, and by women speaking about changing the narrative around working mothers.

The working mother

Rachel fully acknowledges that there are certainly lots of people with ideas on how to make the working environment more accommodating for mothers especially within STEM, where working from home is sometimes just not an option. She was able to give us some of the experiences she had that helped her to continue in her career.

“Put up another building and give somebody on-site day-care, especially if you’re running 24/7. That would be huge, to give people the option.”

We went on to discuss one of the pharmaceutical companies that Rachel worked for who offered a fantastic concierge service, aimed at supporting all employees with their lives outside the office and thereby allowing them to focus more whilst at work. This service would cover anything from buying Christmas presents and wrapping them for their employees’ children, to collecting their kids from day-care when a project meeting over-ran or in the event of an emergency.

Rachel had young children in a time where she also had elderly parents to care for, really putting a strain on her time, so a service like this was a huge help and allowed her to bring the best version of herself to work each day. Simple accommodations that could be made to support parents who are balancing childcare with work can really support the growing levels of equality in the workforce.

“When the kids are out of school in the summer, what do you do? You sign them up for summer camp. So what one company did was have all these different camps actually come into the plant. You could go visit with them and get stuff. Then if you signed up, they actually brought the buses to the company. You loaded your kids on there, you worked, and then the buses showed up at the end of the day from camp and you got your kid.”

Trusting the numbers… or not

It has become accustomed for companies to report and promote the level of senior leadership split between males and females and whilst this is a positive, it’s important to look a little more closely at these numbers believes Rachel.

“That’s great if stats show that 30% of our workforce are women, for example, but deep dive into the individual numbers. Let’s look at how many female maintenance people you have. How many female electricians do you have? How many female pipe fitters do you have? How many female engineers do you have and at what level?”

It comes down to allocation of responsibilities; perhaps women are being given opportunities to work on more engineering projects but how many are being promoted? How many are able to manage those large projects?

Rachel worked for another large pharmaceutical company who held regular Women’s Networking events. They were promoting figures to show how the company was making sure women were included and given opportunities. However, the figures appeared to be telling a story that didn’t sit right with Rachel.

“it was really hard because I was at a big women’s networking event, and they brought in heads of other plants, etc, to talk. I said, ‘Hey, you guys need to deep dive into these statistics you’re throwing out there because I can tell you right now on every level you are not meeting it’. And because I brought that up in a big group, I wound up having four separate meetings with higher-up to explain what I meant and why. To this day, no one has done anything about it. So it was like I got punished for bringing it up.”

Thankfully things are starting to shift, there is more opportunity and change is happening. This change is largely coming from women like Rachel who have worked their way up and are now trying to feed the lessons they’ve learnt down to the next generations.

Continuing to develop and create change

Rachel now works for companies that allow her to have real impact on the next generation. She has gone from being an Associate Director to Director, and now has gone back to Project Management again. She feels that she doesn’t need to aim for the top anymore; she wants to enjoy her career through running projects, which is what she loves most. When Rachel discussed what really kept her motivated through some of the harder times, it really came down to environment.

“It’s really the people at the level that you’re working at. If you have a really good team, that’ll keep you working, and the kind of work that I’m doing, that keeps me working. I know the things that I’m working on for medical devices and pharma. I know what’s going on with it and that’s exciting.”

So when she’s trying to inspire the next generation to keep working and keep driving change, she has her own way of doing this and being aware of her influence.

“I’ve really tried to involve myself in mentorship. I started to kind of mentor the younger female engineers, and the male. I’m trying to look out for the ones that I think aren’t given the same advantages that I see others getting and trying to pull them into opportunity.”

Mentorship is one thing, but she believes that, more than this, what young engineers really want to find is a sponsor.

“You really want a sponsor and that’s different than a mentor. When you start off in work and you have no idea, some people get kind of hand-picked. There may be a mindset of ‘I’m not gonna bother with you because I really like this other person’. You really need to actively try to promote yourself and put yourself out there. The truth is you’re not going to move up like you want to if you don’t have a sponsor, but it’s a two-way street. You have to help them as much as they help you.”

Rachel had sponsors in some of her companies and in others she didn’t, but she wants to share the importance of finding that person, that champion of your successes.

“Really it was just about noticing how much work I was doing and how things were going. Someone saying, ‘Hey, we need to find a succession plan for you.’ We need to figure out ways to do this and those were new conversations for me. So I would tell anybody starting out to start looking around for a sponsor. Get active, get involved and promote yourself. Don’t think that just putting your head down and doing a lot of hard work is going to get it for you because it’s not.”

So moving forward, as the next leaders take their roles in growing and promoting, it’s important to acknowledge any biases you may have, or changes that need to be made and address them head on.

“You have to be fearless and not be afraid to say when something isn’t right. You don’t need to publicly shame anybody, but you do need to go have some hard conversations or maybe talk to your compliance people to find out what can be done, rather than just chalking it up to experience. You really need to be fearless and have those really courageous conversations.”

The contractor world

It’s easier to voice injustices or enact change when you are a staff member, when working as a contractor, this can be harder to navigate.

“When you’re a contractor and you experience things like this, it’s difficult because they can get rid of you tomorrow. If you say something, which women have a real tendency to do, and you don’t have any kind of leverage, you have to make it clear that you need to be taken seriously. Otherwise, you just get labelled as difficult to work with, and it’s not true. Most times if a guy had said the same thing, they wouldn’t be labelled as difficult so I don’t know what the answer is if you’re contracting right now. A lot of women are not contracting.”

Rachel had a particularly shocking experience as a contractor. She joined a Zoom meeting filled with senior male staff members who were comparing women to dogs and how ‘you can’t teach them anything’. At the time, no one addressed the senior staff members involved.

“I got a call afterwards from some of the men who’d been on the call saying how incredibly inappropriate it was, and I’m like, what are you telling me for? I mean, yeah, I know it is!”

There is still a long way to go to make sure that we are openly addressing situations that are not appropriate, whether you’re a staff member or a contractor, and it’s understandable why Rachel was unable to say anything in this scenario. We need to be better for generations to come.

Rachel’s advice for the next generations

“Be really strong and who you are and what you want and go after it, don’t let anyone else deter you. But also try to stay as humble as you can because there’s always more to learn. There’s always people behind you, around you, above your level and below, who you can absolutely help educate and learn from. Be strong in who you are and look around for how you can progress and grow, because no one’s gonna lay out your path for you. It will constantly change and you just adapt.

Remember (and this is the worst thing for me), I think Madeleine Albright said it best, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’ So don’t be that woman boss that everybody talks about, who hates other women. Don’t be that person. You know your job. You’re not here in life to make other people’s jobs hard. You have a lot of positive stuff to give.”

Contact us today

If you are currently seeking a new job within the engineering field in the life science sector, don’t hesitate to reach out to our specialists today to discuss what opportunities could be waiting for you!



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