Don't try to be one of the boys

Posted on: 25/07/2017

infocus: Women in Innovation mentor Dr Jackie Hunter quickly learned how important it is to be yourself as you climb the corporate ladder.

It’s important to respect different styles and ways of working.

Dr Jackie Hunter is CEO of BenevolentBio at BenevolentAI, where she directs the application of the company’s technology for drug development. She is one of 22 senior business mentors supporting the infocus: Women in Innovation programme. Here, she talks about the value of both a strong external network and having a good sense of humour. 

What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman in science?

My PhD was in monkey behaviour and my post-doc in rat behaviour, which clearly stood me in good stead for boardroom discussions! Actually, I very quickly made my mind up that I wanted to apply research to human disease, and that industry was the best place to do that. Somewhat disconcertingly, on my first day at GlaxoSmithKline, the head of department asked me if I would ‘rather be treated as a woman or a scientist’ – strangely enough, I hadn’t realised they were mutually exclusive states. Indeed, I survived in both! In many ways, my gender was not important in my career, but I do think at a senior level, there are unconscious biases that come into play, so gender became more important as I rose up through the grades to Senior Vice President (SVP).

What did you learn along the way?

·       Don’t try to be one of the boys – I fell into that trap, and then it’s hard to come back and be yourself

·       Balance work and life!

·       I didn’t champion the achievements of the organisation I ran enough – I thought its achievements would speak for themselves, but that isn’t always enough

·       It’s important to respect everyone’s different styles and ways of working.

And what helped you the most on that journey?

·       Having a reasonable work-life balance which provides support – home when work is going badly; work when things are less rosy at home

·       Unknowingly having a secret ‘sponsor’ in Tony Ainsworth, who supported my promotion to department head

·       Getting a really good coach for a year when I became SVP – that made me more aware of how I was perceived and how to think strategically about intra-company networking and relationship building

·       Maintaining a good network externally

·       A sense of humour

·       Always seeking clarity on accountability and holding people to account

·       Working with smart people.

“On my first day at GlaxoSmithKline, the head of department asked me if I would ‘rather be treated as a woman or a scientist’ – strangely enough, I hadn’t realised they were mutually exclusive states.”

What are the key things start-ups really need to consider in trying to get their innovation to market?

·       Being very clear on the customer and the problem the innovation will solve

·       Ensuring that they have clarity on the business model they will use

·       Realistic estimates of time and cost

·       Investing time and effort into getting the best team possible

·       Getting the right investors who are aligned with overall company goals and vision.

What do you think needs to happen to encourage more girls and women to work in STEM industries?
·       More visible role models

·       More internships at school level to encourage girls to really look at the opportunities – I have found, for example, many teachers are not aware of the huge opportunities in areas such as mathematics (one poor girl was just told accountancy and becoming a maths teacher!)

·       Actively making workplaces more diverse (it’s not just about gender)

·       More data about the business benefits of a diverse workforce and more data on the inequalities and biases that exist in order to better inform policies to root them out.
What is most likely to close the gap between idea and product in the UK?
·       More incentives for investment in early stage companies

·       More imagination and risk taking by the VC community

·       Use of procurement/SBIR initiatives by publicly funded organisations

·       Greater awareness and education amongst the academic community about how to take an idea to market

·       More funding for Innovate UK!

-Interview by Katharine Rooney

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