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UN Day of Women in Science 2021: Smashing the glass ceiling to accelerate nutritional innovation

February 14, 2021
Diversity & Inclusion

While women are generally well-represented in the nutrition sciences, they remain underrepresented in the C-suite.

Diversifying traditionally male-dominated managerial positions with women, however, could give a new lens to industry challenges, ultimately leading to business growth through innovation.

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated annually on February 11 by UNESCO and UN Women, NutritionInsight speaks with seven nutritional scientists about how women can be better included in industry.

“The glass ceiling, that invisible barrier to advancement that women face at the top levels of the workplace, remains as intractable as ever and is limiting innovation and hurting the economy,” stresses Dr. Julia Wiebe, head of R&D at Nektium.

Women nutrition scientists not faltering
Unlike other industries, such as packaging and chemical engineering, nutritional sciences have a very active female participation rate.

“Many nutrition science students at university level are women,” says Fatima Hachem, senior nutrition officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Nutrition and Food Systems Division.

She notes her division is the only one in the FAO with a majority of women professionals. This also applies to the nutrition departments at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters and its regional and country offices.

“Women’s passion for nutrition is well translated into access to education and job opportunities in the field of nutrition,” affirms Rain Yamamoto, WHO scientist, nutrition policy and scientific advice.

“In fact, there are stigmas that link nutrition science and its profession to home economics and regard it as a ‘woman’s career choice.’ This may be the reason why we see more women than men in the field,” Yamamoto notes.

Disproportionate leadership representation
Despite the high proportion of women in the nutrition sciences space, there are problems with underrepresentation in high-level positions.

“If you take a closer look, you will notice that within the organization – be it WHO, a university, or a food company – the top positions are mostly occupied by men,” Yamamoto remarks.

According to McKinsey & Company’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study, women held just 38 percent of manager-level positions throughout various industries, while men held 62 percent.

For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 72 women were promoted. This gap was even larger for women of color: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted.

Makeup over scientific achievements?
Even when women scientists reach leadership positions, they are often held at different standards than men, says Bridget Benelam, nutrition communications manager at the British Nutrition Foundation.

“It’s been inspiring to hear about the work of Professor Sarah Gilbert, who led the development of the Oxford vaccine against COVID-19,” Benelam shares.

“But the fact that Professor Gilbert was a mother of triplets drew much comment and I’ve heard nothing about the family lives of men in this field,” she flags.

Benelam adds she would like to hear about women’s scientific expertise without necessarily being told their age or who did their makeup.

The maternity gap in career paths
The issue of women scientists and child-rearing is more complex than it seems. Regardless of gender, scientists like Professor Gilbert are confronted with long working hours.

They have to deal with the added pressures of developing a publication record while securing grant funding.

“Unfortunately, the years of intensive research required to establish an independent career coincides with the period during which people tend to start families,” says Wiebe from Nektium.

She points out the added difficulty for women in taking career breaks to have children. As women still bear a greater proportion of childcare and household responsibilities, it is more difficult for parenting women to develop the publication record needed to advance their careers.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, threatening female scientists with lasting career damage.

“If school and childcare facilities remain closed in the coming months, [the mothers’] careers could be derailed. The effects could outlast the public health crisis and aggravate the gender gap in science.”

Diversity and disruption drive innovation
To succeed in the business world, staying ahead of the curve is everything.

Nearly 75 percent of various companies surveyed by the Boston Consulting Group say innovation is one of their top three management priorities. Thirty-five percent rank it above all others.

“Sustainable growth in a mature industry does not come from business-as-usual, but from new business opportunities,” Nektium’s Wiebe affirms.

The higher the rate of diverse representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. According to a May 2020 McKinsey & Company report, there is a 48 percent performance differential between the most and least gender-diverse companies.

According to the report, companies with over 30 percent women on their executive teams are significantly more likely to outperform those with 10 to 30 percent women.

“By having a diverse workforce, innovation will arise through collaboration and discussion, approaching the market from different angles,” explains Mariko Hill, product development executive at Gencor.

She observes that women tend to have better emotional intelligence and organizational, communication and empathy skills, leading to better management both internally and externally.

“This may also lead to more bespoke products as women tend to be better at listening: developing products that address what consumers really want,” Hill notes.

A case study in infant formula
Biomilq CEO and co-founder Michelle Egger agrees applying a female lens to human nutrition helped her cell-based infant nutrition start-up spur its growth in the past few years.

“We always joke that as an organization of mothers and mostly female scientists and engineers, we are the antithesis of the ‘men in black suits’ usually leading infant formula business units at large companies,” Egger muses.

“When you are more similar to your own consumer, you can determine what kinds of questions and worries are important to answer for them and innovate to solve our mutual problems of being parents in this modern time, instead of seeing it as solving their problems.”

She views the infant formula sector as a “hot space” where many people are looking to make profits, rather than help women.

“This is a serious issue because feeding infants should not be a sector where companies are looking to pillage and profit off of women’s health, infant nutrition or female empowerment because it’s trendy.”

Consequences of indifference
The Janus face of diversifying corporate culture is unforgiving. “An economy that does not fully take advantage of all skills offered by women, be it for leadership, science or innovation, cannot be efficient,” says Wiebe.

A less diverse workforce typically consists of a team of like-minded individuals with the same background and who have faced similar challenges, argues Dr. Mariette Abrahams, CEO of personalized nutrition platform Qina.

This will, in turn, result in less innovation and less effective problem-solving. Abrahams adds limited examples of female scientists in the media, books, technology and popular culture contribute to slow growth.

“Also, in my experience, people working in nutrition are predominantly from a white British or European background,” Benelam replies.

Training and educating women in nutrition across the globe is vital to ensure more than just Eurocentric dietary patterns are represented in algorithms and recommendations, says Abrahams.

“We need to encourage people from a more diverse range of backgrounds to get involved in nutrition science so that our society is better represented,” says Benelam.

By Anni Schleicher


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