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Dangerous Experiments

Dangerous Experiments is the LabSpaces spot for guest bloggers. The purpose of the blog is to give new and old bloggers a space to experiment with blogging. If you'd like to contribute to this experiment, send us an e-mail or contact us on twitter at either @LSBlogs or @LabSpaces.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Mary Canady is the founder Comprendia which provides marketing and social media consulting services to the life science and biotech industry. Additionally, she began the San Diego Biotechnology Network to help life science researchers and professionals connect online and at monthly networking events. Mary also serves as a liaison between life science companies and the science blogging community, and she can be found on Twitter at @comprendia.


There is an ongoing, fascinating discussion in the science blogosphere about women in science, covering such topics as being a mom as a scientist (including Jade’s post which prompted me to write this one), women scienceblogging, and the ever present salary inequality discussions. To contribute to these conversations constructively, I’d like to list the best advice I’ve received as a woman in biotech. Since getting my Ph.D. in biochemistry, and moving into ‘industry’ about ten years ago, I’ve gotten great advice and also learned a lot. These recommendations can also be used by those with a science background in general, as qualities such as self-denigration are common and may be perpetuated by the culture of higher education.


  1. Stop apologizing. This advice came from my excellent mentor and friend Karin Hughes, a ‘no-nonsense’ boss I had a few years ago. I think that women tend to be ‘fixers’ and sometimes we see an apology as an easy fix. Are work issues such as not getting back to someone quickly usually our fault? Maybe, but apologizing should not be your ‘go to’ response as it places the blame on you unnecessarily and puts you in a conciliatory mode which isn’t a good position to be in. Try to notice how often you apologize in presentations, emails, etc. Sometimes I still do it as a habit when composing emails, and I delete it.
  2. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Related to #1, I see women being more self-denigrating than men, short selling themselves and even their company’s capabilities. On the flip side, I have a male business colleague who is consistently telling me in exaggerated terms how well his business is doing, and I’m sure this can’t always be the case. Should you do either? No. Be honest and straightforward, but resist the temptation to point out shortcomings. As with #1, it’s usually superfluous information which only harms you. Surprisingly, bright women have a hard time with this, so you’re not alone!
  3. Ask for what you deserve. As a consultant I see this facet of women’s behavior from both sides of the business. For myself, I have a tendency to charge too little for my services (I’ve corrected it so don’t think you can hire me on the cheap!). Directly flowing from suggestions #1 and #2 is to be confident in your abilities and what you’re worth. In hiring for my business, I’ve seen women tending to be more hesitant than men to negotiate for what they’re worth. Are women’s salaries lower because of internal or external forces? Hard to say, but if you’re not doing your part by asking for a good consulting rate or salary, you shouldn’t be complaining. Don’t know what you’re worth? Start with salary guides, and if you can find enough information there, ask recruiters or even find some good friends who will share what they know.
  4. Learn to delegate. At a biotech company I remember watching a female colleague present some important, but mind numbing detail project data and someone whispering to me  “Why does she get all the sh*t projects when she’s so bright?” I think women have proficiencies with projects involving details and organizing, and that means we not only get assigned them, but sometimes we even seek them out! Have you ever been in a situation where you just can’t stand that there is no infrastructure in place, and you offer to set it up? The apparent disappearance of administrative assistants in many areas of biotech exacerbates the problem (what’s surprising is that academia, with fewer funds, tends to keep their admins). The solution? Either plan for, hire, and delegate others to carry out these types of activities, or describe to your boss why your time is better spent doing what you’re trained to do. Don’t get me wrong, we all have to do rote things we don’t want to do, but if you’re consistently being given this type of work because you’re ‘good at it’ then you need to put your foot down or leave.
  5. Embrace being different. How many times have you gone to a scientific conference, watched a male speaker from the audience whom you wanted to talk to, then tried to find them afterward? Was it a…grey suit and blue shirt? For me, this never happens with a woman speaker, since there are almost always far fewer speaking at biotech conferences, and of course we have the opportunity to dress a bit differently. I’m not saying you should come dressed in a purple flowered dress, but realize that the fact that you can stand out can be an advantage. This can mean also the way you approach problems, cultivate teamwork, or even have more of a penchant for creativity than your male counterparts. Also, I find that in marketing, the men are often the minorities in meetings, quite a change from R&D! Both men and women should think about what they are good at and whether their current career fits.
  6. Mentor others. Once you start correcting behavior that is harmful to your career, you’ll likely notice others who are doing the same, why not help them? Early on, I heard that ‘women bosses are harder than men’ or ‘women are harder on other women.’ I haven’t seen this to be the case, but perceptions like this could result from women who aren’t self aware, and they may inadvertently pass off responsibilities, lower pay, or even stress to their employees or other women. A rising tide lifts all boats, so helping out anyone who isn’t living up to their full potential will help us all. Too shy? Simply send them this post! I know I have appreciated much of the advice I have gotten, even though sometimes it was hard to take at first. No one you can mentor or who will mentor you where you work? Find those who are local or even on Twitter, etc. who you can talk to—I’ve found discussions with Sally Church of Pharma Strategy Blog very valuable and I am grateful to her for helping me with my business. Also, check out the Association for Women in Science, they have formal and informal events in many areas of the country.

I hope this post will help you to face the biotech work environment in a way that helps you to succeed. I’m just one person, I’m sure you’ve got some great insights and advice, please share!

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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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These aren't just great tips for women, but I think men can benefit from this list too.  Thanks for the insightful post, Mary!

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Thanks Mary! This is really helpful. Delegation is really an area where I need to improve. And trusting others to do as good a job as I would....or at least stop caring so much about everything being perfect and "my way".

In my experience, in academia, the women were much harder on me over men. In biotech, I've not seen the same level of competitiveness between women. It's definitely been a more supportive environment.

Mary Canady

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Thanks Jade! Yes delegating is my achilles heel...just this morning I was troubleshooting errors in one of the websites we maintain myself. I provide this list for my own reference as well!

Interesting about women being harder on each other in academia, I can see that. Do you sometimes get discouraged at how few women speakers there are at biotech/pharma conferences?

27 and a PhD
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AWESOME!!! And so true.

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Great post Mary Smile. As others have said here and on twitter, this is all good advice even outside of biotech.  I especially like the mentoring others point, and think its important to add to never burn bridges with former mentors.  Even if you've long left their lab or group, you never know when they might be useful to you so stay in touch.  Many of the recent trainees and techs (say past 5yrs or so) from my group continue to send small Christmas presents to the lab/our PI (like a basket of chocolate and card with a photo of their family or something like that) just to say thanks...nice tradition.  And on the other side, mentoring others can be an educational experience for you too - you really have to understand something well to explain it to others.

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Hi Mary,

I would say that I notice how few women there are.  I also notice how many women a company has working at their trade show booth.

I was involved in a project where I had to line up experts on a subject for a series and of course I was conscious of making sure I had women involved so I asked the top women in the field to participate. All declined the invitation (with exception of one). So I ended up having a line up of 11 people with only one woman. But not because I didn't try.

Most of the reasons for saying no were that they were too busy- too many trainees in the lab to oversee or grant deadlines. The men I asked were keen to be involved in the project and fit it in despite whatever they had going on. I am sure they had the same higher priority committments.

So sometimes when I get annoyed that there are no women in the schedule or on the agenda, I think of that and how I went through the same thing. Maybe the organizers tried and everyone said no? Sometimes you have to take what you can get.

Are women getting better at setting boundries and prioritizing their time? Maybe. And since there are so few in comparison to men in the upper tier, it can be hard to get them to commit to extra activities that do not have a major impact on their career.

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When I see a trade show booth with all men and no women- and not the small ones with 2 staff, but I've seen boths staffed with 6-10 people and all men, then I think, that company is not female friendly.

They don't have a single woman on the marketing or sales staff? Something is wrong.



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