Portrait of Smart Little Schoolgirl Looking Under the Microscope. In Elementary School Classroom Cute Girl Uses Microscope. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Education Program

How to nurture the next generation of women in STEM

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Article by Ana Sousa Dias, Manager Product Stewardship and Regulatory Affairs, Avantium

The outcomes and results of businesses are a culmination of many things – but arguably, there is no contribution larger than the work of our team members.

Team structures make up the essence of our companies, meaning that it is essential that our leaders foster an inclusive workforce that works for everyone. A work environment should be collaborative between everybody and look to uplift its current employees and potential ones, so that everyone feels motivated to achieve their potential.

By encouraging diversity, we are encouraging the varied and rich perspectives needed to drive innovation. For women in STEM, this is vital and will inform the next generation of people entering jobs in the industry. Already, we are seeing women championing a new wave of innovation, and with solid collaboration, we can continue to do so.

Creating the foundations

As Marie Curie said, “I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” I believe that this applies to both leaders and budding young women wanting to start a career in STEM. Progress and success are built from the ground-up for most people, and the foundations in which one grows has to be carefully laid to ensure its sturdiness.

My background is in chemistry, more specifically I graduated in organic chemistry in the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.  I have been working on sustainable solutions since the beginning of the 2000s. During this time, I have gone from developing technologies to exploring environmental impact of those technologies and the safety of the products within the regulatory landscape. There have been many opportunities to test the waters of the different facets of chemistry which are also open for others to experiment with. And the great thing about innovation is that new possibilities are multiplying – STEM is an area of true variety and growth. It is vital that these opportunities are taken, to build up one’s experience and find a focus that inspires.

It is also important that leaders continue to offer opportunities and ways into the industry for younger women, whether this be through work experience for high school students or internships for those studying STEM subjects at degree level. Whilst education is a key component to harnessing the knowledge needed to work in the industry, in-person, hands-on experience is incomparable and exposes people to the skills needed to succeed. A mixture of the two, education and work experience, bring a rich and strong foundation for future generations of women to excel in STEM. In other words, this is a collaborative effort between leaders in the field and the budding scientists themselves.

Establishing the best possible environment

Taking my findings in sugar chemistry during my PhD in CICECO, Universidade de Aveiro, I joined forces with the equally passionate company in The Netherlands: Avantium, one of the very few scientific groups active in the sugar conversion field. This was a huge turning point for me, being the first opportunity to analyse data and explore more technologies and catalytical systems, benefiting from high throughput screening knowledge and capabilities of Avantium. Having solidified a passion for sustainable chemistry beforehand, it was ideal that I had found a match in a company which could help me excel both as an individual and in a team.

With a positive, motivational work environment, it becomes easy to grow and deliver. This is where companies must take initiative and continuously strive towards the best possible workplace, even those who are already succeeding in this. As workplaces are pushed to be more inclusive, businesses must remember that their team consists of individuals with diverse needs and lifestyles. In STEM, we must look to cater to every person and circumstance, wanting the best for employees so that we ensure good mental wellbeing and the best outcomes as a business.

Current leaders of STEM can reflect on our collective experiences, good and bad, to advise how we continue to harness inclusivity in all we do. My person experiences are hopefully a motivator to nurture women in STEM careers and continuously support changes that lead to equal opportunities.

And we must continue to keep mindful of the varying experiences of women who have unfortunately been underestimated and not offered the chances to excel in STEM. As someone who is thankful to be part of a team that wanted to help kick start my career in the industry, we must take these as examples of how we can ensure all women around the world are able to do the same.

We must collectively continue to do the same by offering opportunities to generations of underrepresented communities of all ages to be a part of the future of sustainable innovation. Technology and science move at an accelerated rate and with that, the way we approach developing next-generation technologies must be reflected in our approach to nurturing future scientists.

Representation matters

As demonstrated in many disheartening figures regarding workplace behaviour towards women, there are instances where discrimination is being made, based on gender, as well as race, sexuality and age. These behaviours are leading to some women feeling unsafe and undervalued, and risks preventing others from stepping forward and progressing in their careers. In telling experiences of women in STEM who have had positive, rewarding professional experiences, we can promote best practice for inclusive environments and ways to champion diversity. We must continue to represent the wealth of enrichment that can be gained in this field of work.

Visibility and representation are some of the key ways businesses can create a future workplace where women flourish and feel safe; young girls can envision themselves working in a STEM leadership position if they have the correct example of the ambition needed and path to follow to reach their goal. And whilst quota principles mean well, we must firstly lead by example through our efficiencies and performance, rather than by numbers.

Fundamentally, Diversity in leadership roles helps marginalised communities across the board, through visibility and showing that this achievement is possible. It also inspires others to follow, or through education and implementing practices that foster opportunities that encourage other women to enter the workplace.

From the perspective of providing sustainable alternatives, we are working for the future and need the most forward-thinking people to help do that. As a mother, I know that our work developing sustainable solutions will impact my child and her generation the most. But I also work to give her the example and confidence to be daring and outspoken qualities that are often pinned against women as ‘undesirable’.

Many women underestimate their own abilities and dilute their bold personalities to fit the mould constructed for them. It is our job as leaders to help them realise their full potential. My advice for budding women entering STEM – be eager, ambitious and enjoy each moment.

Keeping the momentum up

Whilst I feel I have been successful in my career as a woman in leadership and STEM, producing innovative, sustainable technologies, it does not stop there. My work in regulatory compliance and science has shown that in our everchanging world, discoveries happen every day. There is no single end goal, and the goalposts are always moving. This pace of change keeps me motivated to continue to climb to the next level and help lead the next generation to create more diversity into the industry.