Choosing to challenge inequality in STEM

Choosing to challenge inequality in STEM
05/03/2021 James Middleton

There has been much written about the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women. From higher rates of job losses to a rise in domestic abuse and the pressures of homeschooling. Not to mention disproportionate exposure to the virus itself – more women than men work in ‘front line’ roles such as caring and hospitality.

The impact of the pandemic continues to set the clock back for gender parity. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, it won’t be until the year 2277 that men and women will finally achieve equal pay at work – a milestone that is currently moving further, not closer.

With this year’s International Women’s Day taking place on Monday, March 8, we wanted to hear what the challenges are like for women in one of the most notorious sectors for inequality – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

So we spoke to Dee Olomajeye, Head of People at Senti Bio, a San Francisco-based technology-driven therapeutics company focused on the next generation of medicine. Senti Bio recently launched Vault Platform to ensure its employees have a safe space to speak up about all forms of workplace misconduct such as discrimination and any kind of unethical behavior.

As a woman in science, what kind of barriers have you faced in your career?

“My first reaction to this question about barriers was to say I didn’t believe I was “qualified” to speak about this because I’m not a Scientist. However, it takes a village. I came to the realization that one does not need to be a member of a group to be an advocate, to be an ally, to be part of the solution. I am answering this question on behalf of the female Scientists at Senti and whom I have met and worked with, over the years, including my sister who is a biomedical engineer.

“The most common experience I hear from female scientists is not being taken as seriously as their male colleagues. Specifically, as they advance in their studies or early in their professional careers, they are discouraged from pursuing top science careers, by male scientists in positions of power. Instead, they encouraged to focus on finding “more appropriate” careers for women that will allow them to “take care of their kids”. All while these same leaders encourage similarly situated male counterparts to shoot for the moon. This disparity in support and encouragement for women, especially in academia creates a “confidence gap” between male and female scientists that can delay how quickly women can advance in their professional careers.”

Breaking Barriers: How is Senti leading on workforce equity?

“At Senti, we believe that it is incumbent upon us (and all employers) to bridge this gap and create a fair and equitable environment where all people are afforded equal opportunity to be as successful as their talents and efforts can take them, unaffected by what others think their limits should be. I am proud to say that majority of Scientists at Senti, are women. Furthermore, two of our three key research programs are led by women. We are focused on making sure our company diverse, equitable, and inclusive especially for typically underrepresented groups in Science. Our very first Employee Resource Group was formed by the women at Senti. It’s called Empowered Womxn Senti (EWS) and it is focused on advocacy for all at Senti who identify as women, and all who wish to be allies in making Senti more gender-equitable in the work we do, how we compensate for similar work, and career advancement opportunities.

“Sent’s first value is “Be Bold”. This is why we are so focused each and every day, on doing the important work of creating and nurturing a culture of empathy, active listening, and psychological safety – so everyone (including women) feels like they can be bold, speak their mind and take action, without fear. We believe that without this culture in place, women – especially our scientists – may never feel comfortable enough to use their voice. What a loss that would be for us – we need ALL voices, ALL ideas, ALL efforts – we are always “Better Together” – which happens to be a Senti value!”

Opportunities for improvement: As a culture leader, what do you think the industry needs to focus on to improve gender equity?

“While I’m proud of our gender equality efforts at Senti, we belong to a larger ecosystem of companies; it isn’t enough to stop these efforts at our own doorstep. Our industry as a whole needs to become more aware of and responsive to gender inequities in academia and in the workplace. It all starts with awareness. Training our teams about unconscious bias, creating employee resource groups to advocate for our female employees, giving equal advancement opportunities to all employees, and paying special attention to our female scientists knowing that they are more likely coming into the workforce with that “confidence gap” that comes from being told you’re not good enough to be at the top of your game.

“That responsibility – working to foster a more gender-equitable and gender-inclusive culture in our workplaces – belongs to ALL of us.”

Watch our recent on demand webinar:

5 ways HR can boost workplace inclusion and equality

And learn

– How COVID-19 has impacted the equality agenda and what HR can do about it

– What it means for your business to have a diverse and inclusive workforce

– Which business processes need to be addressed and how – from recruitment to meetings

– The importance of allies in moving the needle and bystander intervention when it goes wrong

– How to create an effective speak up culture where employees feel confident being themselves