Dr Poonam Malik

Dr Poonam Malik (credit: Fraser Motion)

Article published 10/02/2023

In Scotland we want to establish a pathway on development within science, technology and innovation, which recognises full and equal access to and participation in the sector for women and girls of all ages, to help achieve gender equality and empowerment worldwide.

The 11th February marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science Day which promotes the full and equal access of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It also highlights the global need to put these sectors at the heart of sustainable development programmes and celebrate those that are leading action and innovation around the world.

Dr Poonam Malik, Head of Investments at the University of Strathclyde, has an extensive career working within STEM fields and is passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion and climate change. She is a GlobalScot, a climate champion for the Scottish Enterprise Board, a board member of Skills Development Scotland and has held several leadership roles, as well as being a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE) and the Royal Society of Biology (FRSB).

With her scientific research background and work with Skills Development Scotland we are delighted to share our conversation with Dr Malik about being a woman in STEM and the work being undertaken to battle gender inequality within the sector here in Scotland.

What do you think is the global position for the United Nations (UN) having Gender Equality as one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

From my point of view this is a much-needed boost to get from the position that we are currently in to a place where we need to be. Unless we celebrate and showcase something, we don't make any progress in it.

The UN SDGs talk about gender equality (SDG 5) and innovation (SDG 9), which reinforces the fact that there is a gap, and the UN have a clear ambition to shine a light on these areas and ensure that we are all working together to achieve equity with these goals.

What inspired you to study and work in science?

Curiosity and the analytical nature of science. From a young age I asked a lot of 'what if' and 'why' questions, which led to a host of other queries. Science in certain cases provided me with a lot of answers. What I find beautiful about science is that what happens today can change, and that tomorrow new answers will come, making the need for more research and development an eternal pursuit.

Are you confident that there are enough opportunities that attract and encourage girls into a career in STEM in Scotland?

At what point do you sit on your laurels and say we've done enough? We are making progress but there is still a lot more to do. It is estimated that only 25% of the STEM sector in Scotland is made up of women and this needs to change.

We are in a better position than we were a number of years ago, where girls didn't have an option to study STEM and computer science subjects. Nowadays all subjects are equally available but the challenge in changing the perception of society, community and parents towards girls and women in STEM still remains. It seems to be societal influences that discourage girls from studying STEM subjects and there is still much more to be done regarding 'the norm' and societal encouragement from the family.

There are also challenges in terms of the jobs available to women and girls in STEM and the role models that they have. Skills Development Scotland is doing exceptional work in this area with career advisors by hosting talks at schools sharing information about apprenticeships and showcasing the jobs available within STEM sectors.

Similarly, the University of Strathclyde has a partnership with the Weir Group to promote engineering as career to girls and with Equate Scotland to promote range of careers available in STEM. When we show that a good career in this field is feasible, we see a real uptake from girls and young women but how many of them become professors or CEOs? Women who strive for these senior positions or try to start their own businesses, as founder entrepreneurs, securing funding proves trickier for them. Decades of research and investment reports show that women receive less than 2.0% of overall equity funding from investors for their business ideas and therefore, they struggle to grow their companies.

We need both men and women to work together to tackle this challenge.  We require male colleagues to help build the future pipeline, to act as sponsors for supporting and encouraging more women into stretch projects and into commercialisation of intellectual property technology projects to gain experience and have an opportunity to showcase their potential to bring the desired change for the perception of careers in STEM otherwise, it will become another rhetorical scenario where the momentum will cease, and we won't see any actionable change.

Is there any work in STEM that you feel we are doing well in Scotland?

There are definitely green shoots appearing across Scotland. Historically, there have been instances where secondary schools were not offering science subjects or computing and coding courses for girls because there weren't enough takers. Add budget cuts in and staff shortages and sadly the subjects with less up take will be cut first. As a result, down the line you lose out on building a pipeline of future talent in technology and science subjects.

The way that technology is moving in the world, every aspect of our life will be driven by some form of technology. Not everyone needs to be a programmer or coder, but everyone should be comfortable with use of technology and understand at basic level how decisions are made, what the programme is made of and how it is designed. There are multiple roles in technology companies but sometimes the roles are unfulfilled as people are put off because they don't realise that there are many roles that don't require you to be a technologist or a coder. Our perception and understanding of the tech industry requires further education and development from an earlier stage.

At school level there is the opportunity to educate people about the realities of the industry. I think the key is introducing schoolgirls to career prospects from an early age and for organisations and start-ups to host talks with diverse and ethnic minority as well as underrepresented role models in schools. I spend time holding career talks in several schools and find it fascinating that gender bias remains a prevalent issue amongst school children, with young people knowing more about famous men with notable careers and very little about distinguished women in positions of power.

My career has transtitioned across many stages and sectors; travelling abroad to the UK for my PhD research, becoming the first women scientist from my village in India, assumed the role of an entrepreneurial business leader, heading the investments into the commercialisation of university ventures, which is another heavily male dominated area of expertise, at an internationally renowned technological university in Scotland - and the young school children couldn't believe that someone who looked like me could have been a professorial scientist or a business entrepreneur. Their impression is still a very traditional view of what a scientist should look like and breaking some of those barriers is needed because anyone in our communities should be able to become university professors, CEOs, investors and business leaders.

Equate Scotland do great work in this area, offering free activities to help develop women's expertise, essential skills and confidence. It also provides key opportunities for female students to make valuable links with the industry via its student network, which is the UK's only student network for women STEM students.

Which girl or woman in STEM inspired you?

I was really proud and fortunate to be a recipient of the Royal Society of the UK's Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship in my career. I am a huge fan of Dorothy Hodgkin who, during World War II, designed the structure of penicillin and insulin and was the third woman to win a Nobel Prize. Winning the Royal Society Fellowship gave me the opportunity to be a first time independent scientist and Principal Investigator in my own right and set up my research laboratory soon after finishing my PhD.

Another woman in STEM I hugely admire is Marie Sklodowska Curie who won the Nobel Prize for both physics and chemistry and her daughter Irene Joliet- Curie, also won a Nobel Prize in physics. Both women won their prizes jointly with their husbands. The Curie family were the recipients of five Nobel Prizes in total and they made immeasurable discoveries in both scientific fields. These women changed science in their time and still inspire girls to embark on a career in STEM.

Business events as a platform for innovation

In Scotland, 40% of the conferences that take place each year are within the life sciences sector. There are several opportunities to attend these, alongside entrepreneurial events, to discover more about the country's life sciences start-ups. Initially, there was a shortage of industrial bases and patient capital which is required for following products through the regulatory pathway to be approved and ready for adoption and market launch. This is why traditional investors won't see their returns very quickly. However, the regulatory process pathway that is now in place is causing the shift to smaller agile companies which are driving innovation in the market. This is a very positive change and provides an excellent platform for Scotland's science-driven ventures to be at the forefront of this change.

The opening of the new Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC) is one such innovative example that will help drive this process and to find solutions. The MMIC is a collaboration between CPI, the University of Strathclyde, Scottish Enterprise, UK Research and Innovation and founding industry partners GSK and AstraZeneca and these industrial partners form part of this 'quadruple helix approach' of all right stakeholders being involved. This is one example of game changing 'innovation centres' in Scotland and the opportunities are enormous.

To find out more about International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2023 visit: https://www.un.org/en/observances/women-and-girls-in-science-day