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Dr Gizelle S Baker on the Importance of More Women Entering STEM Roles

Dr Gizelle Baker. Photo: Courtesy of PMI

Dr Gizelle S Baker, VP Global Scientific Engagement, Philip Morris International, encourages young women to follow their passions and urges workplaces to have more inclusive environments. Below, she discusses why the world needs more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) positions.

Why do you think more women are entering STEM?

Women have more opportunities today than they ever used to, in terms of access to education and career prospects, but the fact remains that there is still a huge disparity between the numbers of men and women in STEM roles. To encourage more young women to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—role models are crucial. There are many women who have been pioneers and helped pave the way to where we are today. Today women are responsible for many key scientific and technological breakthroughs – take for example the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. The research was led by a woman, supported by other female scientists who helped manufacture the first batches of the vaccine.

However, only 30% of researchers worldwide are women, and just 35% of all students enrolled in STEM study-fields are female, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Breaking down barriers in STEM education and creating the right pathway for female students so they are encouraged to undertake studies in these subjects will help empower them to see a future career in the industry. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will see a shift in the numbers of women undertaking STEM careers.

What do you think companies can do to better attract women to STEM positions?

At Philip Morris International (PMI), we have really focused on measuring our progress. We recognized that there were challenges in attracting women into STEM roles within the company. When I joined PMI nine years ago, I was one of just a few women in a senior role. As we innovate towards solving one of the world’s biggest health problems around smoking, it is important that we have diversity of thought and look for different ways to address problems.

The company is building a future on a new category of smoke-free products that, while not risk-free, are a better option than cigarettes. At the forefront of the research and development into smoke-free products are PMI Scientists, many of whom are female. I joined PMI after working for several years as a scientist in the US, within pharmaceutical and research companies on treatments for cancer and cardiovascular disease. I decided that — despite the advances in oncology research — prevention is always a better option than treatment. As an Epidemiology and Biostatistics scientist, the proof for me was in the data.

Since 2008, PMI has invested over US $9 billion in the science and research of developing and accessing smoke-free products. As a scientist, it’s an exciting time to be part of the company’s future that develops scientifically backed, better alternatives to cigarettes for those who would otherwise continue to smoke.

There has been a sustained effort by PMI to attract and retain female talent. In 2019 we were certified as equal salary payers across the globe, the first corporation to receive that certification, and we also featured in the 2021 Bloomberg gender equality index. At PMI, we are working to improve gender equality—with a target of 40% of management positions to be held by women by 2022—but we realize there’s a lot of room for improvement.

What can schools and parents do to encourage young girls to go into STEM?

Although more girls are attending school than ever before, UN Women data shows they are significantly under-represented in STEM subjects, and they appear to lose interest in them as they reach adolescence.

A report by consulting firm Capgemini noted a false but prevalent belief in society that boys are “naturally” better at math and science than girls are. Though this stereotype has been debunked, this idea still remains today that boys are naturally better in STEM. To address this, everyone has a role to play. Children should be encouraged to follow their passion first and foremost. If a girl shows enthusiasm for STEM, it is important to foster that curiosity.

What has your experience been like as a woman in STEM?

I am passionate about science and I did not really think it was odd being a woman in science until I moved into the corporate world and into a more senior role. It was not always that unusual for me to be the only woman in a room full of men. This has changed over time and it is rarer for that to happen.

To continue to see positive change, companies need to provide growth and development opportunities for women, giving them a platform to use their voices to be heard. Seeing women in STEM being successful and in senior positions provides role models for younger female professionals, and hopefully, something they can aspire to as well.

What advice would you give to young women who are thinking about going into a field that is related to STEM?

Follow your passions and make sure that you are doing the things that make you feel nervous and excited because those are the experiences that will help you to learn and grow. Whichever STEM field you choose, ensure you choose one that really interests you, so that you can push yourself, get outside of your comfort zone and excel in your career.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Dr Gizelle Baker.

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