Women in innovation: Science and Engineering

Women play a crucial role in innovation and business success at CDP. We’re proud of the critical contribution made by our women colleagues, who lead in diverse areas of innovation including design, research, science, technology, engineering, and human factors.

In this second instalment of our Women in Innovation series, three of our STEM professionals discuss women, leadership, and their role in science and engineering. Caroline Zakrzewski, Alejandra Sánchez and María FM Balson reflect on their work and their career journeys. They aim to share a positive message and empower the next generation of women and girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). We believe their experiences and journeys can help and inspire many others.

Caroline Zakrzewski

Drug Delivery Devices Scientist

How did you become a scientist?

I always knew that I would be a scientist. It wasn’t clear to me immediately what that looked like, but I also knew that I wanted to help people and improve the quality of their lives – to make a lasting difference. I spent some time in hospital as an adolescent and that experience inspired me to focus on healthcare. I embarked on a master’s degree in chemistry and the synthetic organic chemistry that provided a foundation to many traditional drugs. Having started out analyzing drugs that came out of devices, I then got distracted by the devices themselves – how they worked and how they were made. After a while I backed up what I was learning at work with a master’s degree in pharmaceutical engineering that looked at drug and device manufacture in an industrial setting. It’s one of the great things about science that the tools you are given to harness and focus your curiosity can be applied to so many different areas – you don’t need to decide your whole career at the outset. I’ve had many different jobs that I’ve loved, including this one, and that feeling when I see the devices that I’ve helped to design, test, industrialize, and manufacture on the market and in the hands of real patients never gets old.

How does being a scientist help you make sense of the world?

Science is around us every day, helping with our understanding of the world, from flat pack furniture construction to the perfect recipe for banana bread. In the last year, the healthcare sector has made the news more than ever before as we’ve seen population statistics, data modelling, diagnostic devices, and vaccine development becoming front page news. This has been fascinating for me and it’s helped me to be objective about the current situation, but in equal measure it’s frustrating as much of the media fails to understand the details of what they’re reporting.

Does the world need more women in science?

Yes. I’m a great believer in the power of diversity and representation to drive effective innovation. At CDP we use the experiences of our colleagues across different sectors – healthcare, consumer, and industry, to generate solutions to the issues our clients bring to us. Women make up half of the population and it’s important that their voices are considered in product development and particularly in healthcare at all levels. With the benefit to the user foremost in our minds, diverse inputs provide a more widely applicable and robust solution. Without this, healthcare needs of major groups, such as women, are side-lined and left wanting. If you want to make a difference to people’s lives, to find solutions to problems that you see in the world and to be part of a great team doing the same, then science has a career for you.

Alejandra Sánchez

Associate Biomedical Engineer

How did you become a scientist?

I think science chose me. Somehow, I was driven by different events to the point where I find myself today. At least I didn’t have a “conscious plan” to be where I am, but I can definitely say I’ve had decisive role models along the way – family and teachers – that have inspired me, stimulating my curiosity and passion for biology and innovation. Science gives me a deeper understanding of everyday life. It also represents the key element that steers my knowledge into engineered solutions that can ultimately be part of a marketed product in somebody’s hands. I think the best feeling is knowing that my work makes a difference. I also believe science breaks borders and boundaries, you can work in any country you want, the language of science gives you the ability to further understand people from different cultures and backgrounds. This opens so many doors!

Is work/life balance important for gender equality?

Work/life balance is still one of the many unanswered questions regarding gender equality. In my experience – including roles in Argentina and the UK – I’ve always been part of a warm and supportive workforce and life balance hasn’t been a personal issue. However, I’m aware that many leadership positions are not seen as attractive to women, for a number of reasons. For some, the nature of those roles is simply incompatible with non-professional responsibilities, such as caring for children or elderly relatives, which historically have been seen as female responsibilities. Nowadays, these personal responsibilities are better shared among men and women; however, I do think this should be properly addressed if we’re serious about achieving gender equality.

How can we foster the next generation of women leaders in science?

Education is the key. Diversity of thought provides space for creativity and innovation; this is what we need at all levels, from board and senior level executives on down, to better understand a problem and tackle it for optimal results. I’d love to see a greater promotion of inspirational women in STEM to much wider audiences. Everyone in a STEM class at school should be taught of the outstanding women that made a difference in these fields, thus encouraging young girls into following this incredible path. We should also get more companies into schools to show how creative and exciting the industry is and capture young minds.

How can women and girls start a career in science/STEM? Why is this important for the world?

STEM careers are often referred to as the jobs of the future, responsible for driving innovation, inclusive growth, and sustainable development. However, gender disparity in this space remains alarming. Until recently, different myths have been spread by word of mouth and even in academia, arguing first that women were biologically less capable and now that they’re simply less interested in STEM. I’m happy to say that both have been proven wrong, by scholars at Harvard University (for more information access the study and the science article from Slate), and that there is nothing about STEM that precludes female participation. Understanding how crucial it is to take part in STEM fields now, will allow us to take action and play a part in building our tomorrow.

María FM Balson

Consultant Biomedical Engineer

How did you become an engineer?

I’m extremely lucky: I’ve had a broad education, parents who fed and encouraged my curiosity, and excellent teachers. I have always loved languages, philosophy, and the sciences. If I could, I would study everything. I cannot, so I chose engineering.

I really like that von Kármán quote: “Scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that never has been”. I love that idea and, honestly, I think I won the lottery. In my job, I get to be a scientist whenever I encounter a new problem – I have to learn as much as I can about it, as quickly as possible – and then I put on my (metaphorical) engineering hat and work with extremely talented people to solve that problem.

I’m particularly interested in applying engineering principles to the solution of problems in biology and medicine, whether that is designing medical devices, modelling healthcare interventions, or improving access to contraception. Also, I have a terrible soft spot for Excel and Python, so if those are involved, even better.

What do you think of the assumptions and stereotypes connected to women in engineering?

Professor Tim Minshall sums it up really well in this TED talk: too often, when people think of engineering, they think “men, hammers, spanners, boots”. This, while sometimes true, is a very narrow and outdated view of engineering, which is a rich and evolving field as broad and diverse as any academic discipline. At its heart, engineering is the application of scientific principles to the solution of problems in any and all areas of life, from feeding the world’s growing population to reversing climate change.

Now, more than ever, we need STEM professionals. We need a larger and more diverse talent pool. We need to attract more women and minorities, then train them and retain them. This is a complex endeavour, and requires work on many fronts. One of these is outreach: engaging with the wider community to change their perception of science and engineering, from “hard, boring, and not for me” to “exciting, accessible, and world-changing”. I’m heartened to see all the great outreach that happens in Cambridge, coming from both the University and the local technology firms. I urge all STEM professionals to get involved in these types of activities and to continue expanding their reach into underserved areas. It’s not always easy and can be disheartening at times, but it really is worth it.

What can we do to empower women in STEM?

What a great question, and how difficult to answer! The first thing, as ever, is recognizing that there is an issue and that it needs to be fixed: we need more STEM talent urgently, we need a more diverse workforce, and there are barriers preventing women and other underrepresented groups from joining and advancing in the profession.

Many people (often men, but not always) are unaware of the extent of the issue and cost of ignoring it – they do not realize that inequality is holding us all back. It leads to missed opportunities and carries a very real social and economic cost. Therefore, the first step is education: educating ourselves and others on the value of diversity and the importance of working towards an equitable workplace and society.

Next comes the difficult task of untangling the problem: gender inequality is a very complex issue, deeply tied into cultural expectations, societal norms and economic incentives. And it’s a vicious circle: inequality breeds inequality. For example, women earn less than men on average, so they are more likely to take extended leave for childcare than male partners (to minimize lost earnings) and so they miss out on experience, raises, and promotion, which then widens the income gap even further.

Thankfully, a lot of great research has been done into the roots and ramifications of the problem, as well as concrete steps we can all take to address it. I hope to explore some of these in a future blog, but for now, I’ll leave you with a book recommendation: Women Don’t Ask, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.

At CDP, we are currently recruiting for more than 80 positions across a range of disciplines and seniorities. As an inclusive employer, we’re committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace and welcome applications from all talented individuals. We also offer graduate schemes in Cambridge (UK) and Raleigh (NC, USA). For more information, visit cambridge-design.com/join-us

If you missed the first blog in our Women in Innovation series, you can find that here.