Life Sciences Lean-In: How Women Can Excel in the Discipline

Female Scientist

Women have the same opportunities as men to enter the life sciences field, but do not appear to have the same opportunities to advance to the highest levels. Less than a quarter of top-executive positions in the discipline are women, based on a frequently cited report from MassBio. Still, women hold a slight majority of medical-scientist and life-scientist positions – 53.5%, reports DataUSA.

Here are some ways to boost the upward trajectory of your career as a woman in the life sciences industry:

Commit yourself to higher education ­– but get the right degree. A college degree is the single most powerful tool young women can deploy to ensure a leg up in the world of work. With women now comprising a majority of those earning bachelor’s degrees, as reported by Pew Research, women’s career fortunes have reached a turning point. You can make the most of this climate by choosing a degree program that fits your life-science aspirations. While women have succeeded in life science without a science-related degree, the path is more difficult as Jacquie Mardell described in an article by Shahana Chowdhury: “I had to break through the then-conventional wisdom that a non-medical person would be unable to perform effectively in the role [of clinical research associate].”

Recruit a mentor, a sponsor, or even a Board of Directors. Mentors have long been seen as a particular boon to women’s career prospects. If you are having difficulty finding a mentor on your own, consider professional organizations, such as Women in Bio, that have mentoring programs. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett has taken the mentor concept a step further. Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation, writes: “To successfully make [the leap to the next professional level] requires something more specific: a sponsor. More than a mentor, this is someone in a senior position who’s willing to advocate for and facilitate career moves, make introductions to the right people, translate and teach the secret language of success … for their proteges.” Read more on BioSpace about sponsors and mentors.

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You need not limit yourself to just one of these career advocates. On the Forbes site, Joan Michelson, suggests forming a Board of Directors for yourself, consisting of sponsors, mentors, coaches, and role models.

Network. Networking is not only the most effective way to get a job, but one of the best ways to get noticed and promoted at a current job. It’s also especially valuable for women. One of the best networking techniques for younger women is informational interviewing (because prospective interviewees are often more open to being interviewed by students and young people). Learn more about informational interviews. Another highly effective technique is joining professional organizations. You can look for expert women in life sciences with whom to network using the WILS database of women in science.

Put yourself out there. To advance in your life sciences career, you need to be visible to those who can help you climb the ladder. Here’s where networking morphs into positive self-promotion. Raise your face-to-face visibility by frequenting meetings of professional organizations and attending and presenting at conferences. Consider the annual Life Science Women’s Conference, which offers mentoring, networking, and education. Ask meaty, thoughtful questions of conference presenters. Serve as a presenter yourself. Don’t forget virtual visibility. Consider your own website and professional presence on the major venues, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Comment frequently but judiciously on relevant blogs and social media posts.

Get inspired. There’s nothing like the success of others to inspire us to reach the same heights. Here are links to the stories of successful women in life sciences:

Final Thoughts

You are on the right track in pursuing life sciences. For a woman seeking career success, it’s sensible to be in a growing field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts jobs in the field to grow by 10% through 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. Consider boosting your advantage even further by locating yourself in a life sciences hotbed, one of thriving regional clusters of the life sciences industry.

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