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Life science industry tips for women

Stephanie Baum on May 02, 2012 Source: MedCityNews.com

The number of women working in the life sciences may not have grown significantly in recent years, but if the advice shared by a group of executives in a panel discussion is anything to go by, gender is becoming less of an issue.

For women considering a career in life sciences or currently working in the sector, more options are available as to the direction you can take with your career, but you should be prepared to make some sacrifices.

Still, it can be a bit daunting to be the only woman in an office or one of a handful, and panelists from Merck (NYSE:MRK)NuPathe(NASDAQ:PATH)AdaptImmune and Drexel University shared some insights as part of an event organized by Philly Tech Week  and the Philadelphia Science Festival at the Quorum in the University City Science Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Don’t be intimidated. Deborah L. Crawford, the senior vice provost for research at Drexel University who previously worked for the National Science Foundation, recalls attending a conference as a keynote speaker where she was the only woman and the moderator assumed she was there to take notes. He paled in embarrassment when she identified herself after he announced to the audience it didn’t look like she would be coming. Sometimes, one panelist noted, it can be an advantage being the only woman at a meeting. People tend to remember you.

Seek out a mentor. Most panelists noted the importance of having a mentor to help guide them and share their insights about the industry, with all of them keen to do the same for others. Susan Rohrer, a senior director in licensing and external research at Merck, spoke of the importance of seeking out a mentor. She said through her career, she has come to realize how important it is to have a mentor and pointed to mentoring programs run in-house at Merck. She encouraged audience members to think about reaching out to mentors. “They needn’t be women,” Jane Hollingsworth, NuPathe CEO, pointed out. It’s also important to have role models, but they’re two different things.

Rohrer highlighted the work of Springboard Enterprises, a Washington, D.C.-based venture forum platform in which she coaches women life science startups in their pitches along with other colleagues from Merck.

Build a support networkAlliance of Women Entrepreneurs, a network of women CEO and company founders originally formed in 1995 to improve access to capital, has a regular calendar of events. It also runs a fellowship program for students and early-stage entrepreneurs, and begins soliciting applications in September. The fellows are announced at the alliance’s annual gala in November.

Follow your interests. Maybe one of the indications that things are getting better for women in life sciences was how frequently the panelists commented about the importance of pursuing positions in areas that interested them. It’s an ideal way to avoid getting bored in your career and offers a better chance to learn and grow.

Self evaluate. You will have a much better chance at landing a position if you use your own instincts for what’s right for you, rather than listening to friends, one panelist advised.

Have a supportive spouse or partner. All of the panelists had children or married someone who did. It didn’t stop them from pursuing their careers, but having a supportive partner or spouse was an important factor in giving them the flexibility to take risks with the kinds of career decisions they made. That was one insight shared by Crawford, who was able to take part in a project to observe a penguin colony in the Antarctic, despite having four small children at the time.

If you want something, make it work. If you’re good, it’s easier, Hollingsworth observed. Almost all agreed that everyone faces a trade-off that involves shifting priorities in order to get things they wanted. “My children can cook better than I can,” she admitted.

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