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February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day for raising awareness of the role of women in this field. According to the report “The gender gap in the life sciences and healthcare sector: status, challenges and recommendations”, drafted by Biocat for the Catalan Ministry of Equality and Feminisms, most women hold lower positions than men at Catalan research centers and universities and, as a result, there is a lack of female presence in positions of leadership and decision-making, as well as professional recognition in this field.

To give one example, at Catalan research centers women make up 55% of all predoc researchers but only 28% of heads of research groups in the life sciences and healthcare1

grafic dia internacional dona i nena cienciaStaff broken down by gender in different professional categories at all health research institutes/centers (gender scissors), data for 2013-2017. Source: AQuAS

There are several causes for this loss of female talent, including the dilemma facing women researchers who have to choose between their private lives (and caring for their family) and their professional careers (which in academia tends to require spending time abroad). On this point, Carolina Aguilar, co-founder and CEO of InBrain Neuroelectronics, explains that although work-life balance is difficult, it is possible: "Balancing work and family life is possible if we learn to ask for support from those around us," she says. However, the entrepreneur and scientist, who is at the helm of the scale-up that raised the most funding in 2022, points to other barriers that women scientists face, such as self-confidence, empowerment and leadership development. On this last point, she says: "Female scientists need to learn that the development of our careers depends on us, therefore, strategy, conviction, networking, authenticity and passion need to be put in place".

Laura Soucek, Peptomyc co-founder and CEO, highlights the difficulty of being heard without raising your voice. “Women know how to channel passion, curiosity and empathy into everything they do. You can do science with passion, satisfy your curiosity and find a way to help the world,” says the VHIO researcher who works with MYC. This oncogene becomes deregulated in bodies with cancer and she has designed a dominant negative variant, Omomyc, to research the benefits of inhibiting MYC in cancer patients.

The situation is even more dire in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields because they have the fewest girls in the classroom. “Nowadays, if you get a technological degree, you can do anything,” highlights Neuroelectrics co-founder and CEO Ana Maiques.

In the healthcare entrepreneurial arena, 34% of Catalan health startups and scaleups have women in their founding or executive teams, a figure that while low is up from previous years (29%, 2015-2018). By subsectors, biotech is where we find the most female executives, behind medtech and digital health. This figure is from the 2023 BioRegion of Catalonia Report, which will be presented with this and other data on the sector on February 12. 

On this point, and in general terms, one of the main obstacles female entrepreneurs note is access to funding, mainly because the majority of professional investors are men. “The male presence in power and funding is still overwhelming and this has to change,” says Ana Maiques. For Valerie Vanhooren, co-founder and CEO of Ona Therapeutics, however, the problem goes even deeper. “It is an issue in society, not just science,” she says. “Women are often automatically perceived as less capable just for being a woman.” In the end, there are few leadership initiatives and models for women today. “We have to raise awareness in society that, although women don’t necessarily behave like men, we can still be their equals and hold the same positions while being our true selves,” says the Belgian scientist who is fighting metastasis.


Lack of female role models

Several studies have shown that gender stereotypes are one of the main reasons there are fewer women in science. We aren’t used to seeing women get awards in this field. For example, the National Research Awards granted by the Government of Catalonia have only gone to three female scientists (9% of the laureates) in the highest category since 19902. “Female scientists must have the same right to recognition as men for their scientific merits, in the form of awards, titles and publications,” says Laura Soucek, who also adds the importance of equal pay. 

Unconsciously, gender stereotypes affect how boys and girls perceive their skills and abilities. “That’s why it is important to encourage this vocation among women and give them role models,” stresses Ana Maiques. We live in a world where technology is becoming increasingly important and many of the jobs of the future will be in science careers like artificial intelligence and big data. “Women have to believe they can have a significant place in global technology,” she highlights, and to achieve this the entrepreneur and global benchmark in brain monitoring and stimulation technologies believes we have to encourage girls, from a very young age, to study STEAM subjects.

Some good practices 

To reverse this situation, the report “The gender gap in the life sciences and healthcare sector: status, challenges and recommendations” includes a series of good practices to implement locally and internationally to improve diversity in the public and private spheres. These proposals range from financial incentives like The Mothers of Science at BIST to the WA4STEAM network of female entrepreneurs and the WERockCapital network of female investors and mentors. Recently, Foment announced it is working with the United States Consulate to award grants to roughly twenty female healthcare entrepreneurs through the Jump Startup for Women in Deeptech program, to help them internationalize. 

Biocat, in its commitment to gender equality in health research and innovation, signed the Hypatia of Alexandria Charter and joined the Hypatia Community a year ago. This work group, which includes 19 health research centers in Catalonia, is working to close the gender gap in health research and innovation in Catalonia. Taking into account key aspects like closing the pay gap, eliminating obstacles to stable professional work post-PhD, improving work contracts and promoting changes in organizational culture and professional structure.

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