Julia Wiebe, Ph.D., MBA, Founding Director at large Women In Nutraceuticals and Managing Director of red otc development GmbH, answers questions on gender parity, obstacles women face, and how nutraceutical companies can support gender equity.
What is your perception of the level of gender parity within the science and research segment of the nutraceutical industry?
Dr. Wiebe: Women are under-represented in high positions in the nutraceutical industry and in academia.
The question is why. The majority of graduates of natural sciences are women, in Ph.D. positions women are over-represented with 53% in the U.S., and they are appropriately represented among residents, fellows, and assistant professors in academia, but the presence of women diminishes substantially at the level of associate professor, full professor and department chair. Representation of women at these higher ranks has not advanced in the past 35 years and we are still facing a gender gap, with only one third full professors being women.
Gender imbalances in academia have been evident historically and persist today. As the nutraceutical industry recruits from academia for the R&D and innovation teams, the leaky pipeline in academia directly affects the nutraceutical industry. Reason for the gender gap is probably the fact that women get less funding for their research (according to different sources 30-40% of the available grants), are underrepresented at prestigious authorships as compared to men (Bendels et al, 2018), and get fewer peer-review opportunities. Given the significance of publications for pursuing an academic career, this is worrying and one of the reasons women move slower to higher positions in academia and leave the academic career in disproportionately high number. The talent lost is the talent that will not apply for positions in the nutraceutical industry, for R&D director, CSO or CEO.
Data of the Women In Nutraceuticals Gender Parity Benchmark Survey, which was commissioned by WIN and conducted by NEXT Data & Insights, reflects a similar situation for the nutraceutical industry: Women are under-represented across all types of leadership roles. In American and European company leadership teams, we find 37% women, while the majority of leadership positions are still held by men. On company boards, women are represented with 23%. Only 28% of companies have a female CEO, and large companies report only 13%. Most nutraceutical companies lack a formalized process for tracking employee diversity.
How did the pandemic impact upward mobility of women in science and research careers in academia and what can/should companies do to ameliorate those effects?
Dr. Wiebe: The COVID-19 Pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women in the research workforce, and a recent report by the European Commission’s Expert Group published in December 2022 (COVID-19 impact on gender equality in Research and Innovation) argues that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in research and innovation. Especially due to the additional burden of home caregiver responsibilities, the pandemic has been more challenging for women. This is a huge setback for women in academia, who already faced obstacles on the path to advancing their research and careers that women in academia have fallen behind in productivity, mainly in first author publications and grant funding and that submissions of papers by women has decreased, whereas for men, it has increased. There is a risk that junior women academics will not be able to meet expectations for tenure, the long-term job security academics pursue, as they have not been able to publish enough during the pandemic, and that early-career women academics will decide to pursue careers outside of academia or leave the workforce completely, further exacerbating the challenge for women to achieve leadership positions (Davis et al., 2022; Kwon et al, 2023). This will affect diversity and presence of women in positions of power within academia in the coming years.
What can be done? Universities and institutions need to provide short-term, flexible research and childcare support and link gender equity as a shared responsibility to bonuses of institutional leaders. Stakeholders need to encourage the expansion of support programs for female investigators and advocate for professional organizations and universities to celebrate and publicize effective programs that address gender equity.
Why is it important to have more gender parity within decision makers in scientific research teams, and how does it affect the development of protocols and scientific studies?
Diverse teams help to attract and retain talent, as it gives women a role model and sends the message across that no glass ceilings will keep women from moving into the C-suite. Still, more women than men believe they have to switch companies to get promoted. Proving them the opposite builds trust and attachment to the company.
Women are not only the primary consumers of nutraceuticals (80%), they also are the gatekeepers for the family’s (nutraceutical) consumption by controlling 73% of household spending decisions, according to the Boston Consulting Group (2010). As the industry is moving toward personalized nutrition, if companies want to sell to women, they must develop for women and communicate to women. Who could understand better what female consumers want than women?
What are the obstacles to women moving into positions of responsibility in science and research teams?
Dr. Wiebe: Looking at academia and companies, in academia the lower chances to get funding and less opportunities for authorships lets women move slower into positions of power than men, as explained above. Reduced productivity as a consequence of maternity leave and child-care are further obstacles for women to get into higher positions in academia. Investing twice the time in the household than men, many women decide against a professional career because of the double-burden of job and household.
Women prepare perfectly for the next step to feel confident. They apply for a position once they fulfil all the selection criteria, whereas most men risk an application once they achieve the majority of the job requirements.
There is a lot talk about the glass ceiling, but there are also glass walls, locking women into certain areas, like administration, human resources and communication, while they are less present in areas with P&L responsibility, science & research, innovation and production. We need women to move past the glass walls, to get the full picture of the company and experience in all departments.
A self-perpetuating cycle, in German called Thomas-Kreislauf, leads to men promoting men: Boss-Thomas promotes his younger self, the next Thomas, socially and emotionally similar to himself, not giving room for change in the C-suite and on company boards. If board positions are filled through informal networking systems from networks dominated by men, the self-perpetuating Thomas cycle cannot be interrupted. This slows down company performance and the industry as such.
If we want to take advantage of the full talent pool, if we want diverse teams to work together allowing a more multifaceted view, necessary to answer consumer needs and improve company performance, we need diversity at all levels of the company, also in the C-suite and on company boards.
How can nutraceutical companies work more closely with academic institutions to support gender equity in developing teams and recruiting researchers?
Dr. Wiebe: WIN is currently forming a science committee, which as a board director I am the liaison for. We are bringing together a diverse group of highly passionate and motivated experts from the industry with diverse backgrounds to define how we can support female researchers from different areas to acquire the skills they need to unlock their full potential and move into leadership positions. The mentoring committee, a diverse team of experienced industry leaders experienced in mentoring, is working on a mentorship curriculum that is focused on supporting women from academia and the industry to move into the C-suite, on company boards and into entrepreneurship. Coaching and mentoring are effective ways of addressing women’s lower confidence, prepare them for what is still a “men’s game” and protect them from burnout once promoted.
Companies can do their part and support, motivate, and leverage their female talent pool through systematic planning, flexible working hours, home-office, family-friendly conditions, childcare offerings, mentoring through peers and superiors internally or through organizations like WIN. A skills-based hiring processes and equal pay will definitely help to attract talent and reach gender equity in the years to come.
What is your challenge to the nutraceutical industry when it comes to research in female populations?
Dr. Wiebe: Traditionally, clinical studies have been performed in adult men, turning them into the only reference when looking at efficacy and negative side-effects of products. Researchers did neither consider sex differences nor gender-specific responses when prescribing products. The reason for the exclusive use of men was mostly convenience: a more homogenous group, no hormonal changes to be expected, allowing for good statistical power with fewer individuals, making the study cheaper. However, physiologically and metabolically, men and women are different, and sex differences in the gastrointestinal tract, the metabolic response to exercise, brain structure & function, stress responsivity, to just name a few, caused for example by differences in anatomy, exposure to reproductive hormones, social expectations and experiences requests different treatment approaches (Altemus et al., 2014).
As a consequence, women taking products studied in men are at greater risk for adverse side effects from supplements and medications due to a lack of female representation in clinical trials. A recent review by Zucker et al (2020) reported that in more than 90% of cases, when given the same drug dosage as men, women experienced stronger side effects than men and experienced adverse drug reactions at nearly twice the rate of men (Zucker et al., 2020).
Why is it important to have more research on the health effects of nutraceutical ingredients conducted in the female populations?
Related: Driving Gender Parity in the Nutraceutical Industry: For the WIN
NutraViews: Women Are Your Consumers—Are you Reaching Them?
NutraViews: Lack of Female Representation in Research—Problems & Solutions