Closing the gender gap in biotech – a Q&A with Professor Victoria Hutter, CSO of ImmuONE

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Gender equality in the biotech industry has come a long way in recent years. In the UK, the US and Europe, women now make up between 40-50% of the biotech workforce, which is a higher percentage than in other STEM fields, such as engineering and the physical sciences. But with female representation sharply dropping when we turn our attention to leadership positions, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Fewer than one in four startups has a female founder and only 20% of C-suite positions in biotech are filled by women. 

As a female-led company, ImmuONE is something of a rarity in the biotech world. Dr Abigail Martin and her PhD supervisor Professor Victoria Hutter established ImmuONE in April 2019. They continue to lead the company, with Dr Martin acting as CEO and Professor Hutter as CSO. ImmuONE also benefits from the talents of a brilliant mix of male and female employees. 

To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we caught up with Professor Hutter to discuss her experiences as a female leader in biotech and what she thinks can be done to achieve greater gender equality in the industry. 

Q: Have you faced any additional challenges as a woman in biotech, particularly while setting up ImmuONE? 

A: There’s quite a noticable disparity in the representation of female entrepreneurs and women in leadership positions within our field. However, I think there has been significant progress in recognising and creating opportunities for women entrepreneurs and academics, but there’s still a way to go before closing the gap. 

Our introduction to the bioscience sector came through a program called ICURe, which aimed to transition academic innovations into the commercial sector. The gender balance was fairly equal at the junior level, this wasn’t the case when looking at the senior academic and business leadership positions, which were predominantly occupied by men. Within Abigail’s group, diversity was relatively well-maintained, but as the Principal Investigator (PI), the same could not be said for my experience. Additionally, at the age of mid-thirties, at the time, I found myself considerably younger than the other PIs present. 

Q: What kind of support have you received as a female entrepreneur? 

A: There is reasonable support available for establishing businesses in general in our experience but we haven’t tapped into anything specific for female entrepreneurs. We received significant assistance from Innovate UK Edge and the ICURe program, especially during the initial phases. The University of Hertfordshire were also very helpful throughout this journey. In my department, there was a female colleague who had also initiated a spin-out, and I benefitted from supportive mentors within the university as well. 

Q: In your opinion, do men and women have different leadership styles? 

A: I think leadership style is often rooted in individual traits and personality rather than being inherently linked to gender. What’s truly valuable is cultivating diversity in leadership and working styles, which aligns with our goal here at ImmuONE. Each individual possesses equal potential; it’s primarily a matter of perception. 

Q: Why do you think less than a quarter of startups have female founders? 

A: It’s challenging! Abigail and I joined forces, adopting a divide-and-conquer approach. Without each other’s support, navigating this journey alone would have been significantly tougher. 

Balancing family obligations with the demands of running a business is no small task. Despite the strides we’ve made, women often find themselves as primary caregivers at home, whether for young children or elderly relatives. Over the past six years, I’ve welcomed three children into the world, and Abigail has just recently embarked on her own journey into motherhood. While we’ve been fortunate to have a strong support system, we recognize that not everyone has the same privilege. There are undoubtedly more hurdles for women entering the world of entrepreneurship compared to men. 

Q: Research suggests that mixed gender teams make better business decisions than all-male teams. ImmuONE has a great balance of male and female staff. Have you seen any benefits from this diversity? 

A: We take pride in the diversity of our business, which extends beyond gender to cover a range of experiences. We are a highly collaborative company and our innovation and approaches really benefit from this diversity to get the best ideas to market. 

 Q: Even though there are plenty of female biotech graduates, why is it so hard to get women into top roles? 

 A: Honestly, it all comes down to the timing of your career. It took a good six or seven years for me to establish myself in my initial role, and during that time, I didn’t have children, allowing me to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to my position. I was fortunate later on because when I returned from maternity leave, both the University and ImmuONE provided me with the flexibility to redefine my role. However, not all working environments provide this level of flexibility and it isn’t always feasible which can force women into difficult choices about work-life balance. There’s also very little formal training in the education system for becoming an entrepreneur, making the learning curve incredibly steep! 

 Q: How can biotech companies improve gender diversity? 

 A: From my experience, gender diversity within the biotech industry tends to be fairly evenly split up to a certain level. However, it’s as you progress to higher positions that discrepancies become apparent. Personally, I believe in evaluating individuals holistically, considering not only their accomplishments at a given point in their career but also their overall capabilities. The traditional notion of a linear career trajectory is outdated; nowadays, people bring a wealth of diverse experiences that can enhance their effectiveness in their roles. At ImmuONE, we value individuals with unconventional career paths as they often possess the adaptability and varied perspectives needed to tackle new challenges effectively. A degree of flexible working has also helped us to recruit and retain more women in senior positions. 

 Q: What could be done to better support parents? 

 A: The UK government is taking steps to provide increased support for parents. Starting from April, parents with two-year-olds are eligible for fifteen hours of free childcare, and from September, this support extends to children as young as nine months. This is particularly beneficial as balancing childcare responsibilities can be challenging and expensive! 

 While companies can certainly play a supportive role, true change requires legislative action at the government level. While offering more appealing maternity packages is a step in the right direction, companies are limited by the framework provided by the government. A societal shift is needed, and this can’t be achieved by companies alone. We need a comprehensive cultural shift in how we support and accommodate working parents. 

 Q: Unconscious biases can lead to men being perceived as more competent than women, particularly in STEM careers. How can we overcome these biases? 

 A: This situation is incredibly frustrating. It can be easy to make the assumption that a confident male in a meeting with the loudest voice or most to say, is automatically deemed the expert, while the quieter or more softly spoken individuals may goes unnoticed. Overcoming these unconscious biases can be challenging, but I believe that by increasing awareness and ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to voice their thoughts, we can begin to address these issues. Spreading awareness is crucial. 

I don’t believe we should be instructing women to alter their behaviour or communication styles. If you’re authentic and true to yourself, why should you feel compelled to change who you are? Being aware of these biases is the first step forward and giving the people the tools to overcome them is key. 

Q: Do you think gender equality is improving in the biotech industry? 

A: Absolutely. There’s a noticeable trend of girls becoming interested in STEM subjects at a younger age in school and pursuing them further at university. However, despite this progress, there’s still a long way to go, as you can see by the statistics. It’s crucial to create opportunities that enable individuals to overcome barriers. Greater diversity leads to increased equality, making it easier to achieve a more balanced and inclusive society. 

Q: Will we ever see true gender equality in biotech? 

A: Hopefully! There has been significant improvement even in the span of my own twenty-something-year career. We are certainly progressing, but achieving full equality will take time; it’s more of a generational shift than an immediate change. 

Q: Are there any particular women you regard as role models? 

A: I didn’t have formal mentors; instead, I strive to stay true to myself. I’ve observed and emulated the behaviours of individuals that I consider to be strong leaders. I make a conscious effort to learn from people whose work ethic and approach I admire, not only within my pharmaceutical and biotech career but also from experiences like my undergraduate studies. For instance, during a summer placement at a Pharmacy, I encountered an exceptional manager. Her adeptness in communicating with customers and fairness left a lasting impression on me, teaching me valuable lessons about working effectively with people.  

Q: What’s your advice for women who are thinking about starting a biotech company?  

A: Go for it! Don’t let fear hold you back. Women often tend to overthink and overanalyse situations, but it’s important not to get trapped in that cycle. Just take the leap and have confidence in yourself. Don’t allow doubt to creep in. Trust your instincts and believe in your abilities. 

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