06th March 2020 Written by Jane Rexworthy

Jane 4Jane Rexworthy, Executive Director, People 1st International

International Women's Day, this Sunday 8th March,  provides us with a timely opportunity to take a moment to honour the many enormously talented and committed women currently working in executive roles, across healthcare, pharma and life sciences, as well as in research and development and elsewhere.

Furthermore, to celebrate that we are where we are today because of the courage and determination of a number of women forerunners - in what has essentially been a man’s world.

Winding back the clock, join me, as I take a brief look at the workplace legacy and achievements of three incredible, pioneering and innovative women from the sector who are an inspiration to us all.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Florence Nightingale is widely recognised as the founder of modern nursing. She was also one of the world’s first feminists. In her biography of Nightingale, Judith Lissauer Cromwell argues that “Nightingale changed the concept of hospital nurse from drunken menial to medical professional,” and that “she established a profession for women—one that suited them and proved acceptable within the context of that time. That was a pioneering accomplishment and anchors Nightingale among the founders of modern feminism.” She also points out the huge legacy left by her nursing school, which “within a generation … made nursing accepted and well-paid career for women when they had few if any, options to earn their way to independence.”

It’s perhaps less well known that when Florence Nightingale wanted to study nursing in 1850, she had to enrol at an institution in Germany because nursing training did not exist in Great Britain. But just a decade later, after winning public acclaim for her work in the Crimean War in the face of fierce opposition, she had founded the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas' Hospital, the first secular nursing school in the world, paving the way for nursing careers.

Dr Gertrude Elion (1918 – 1999)

It may be hard to believe, but the American biochemist and pharmacologist got turned down for jobs because she was a woman at the beginning of her career. After graduating in 1937 with a degree in chemistry, Gertrude Elion wrote in her Nobel Biographical, “jobs were scarce and the few positions that existed in laboratories were not available to women.” She also made 15 applications for financial aid so that she could go to graduate school, all of which were turned down because she was a woman. However, she saved enough money by 1941 to take a Master’s degree and was eventually hired as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at Burroughs-Wellcome (now GSK) in 1944.

This was the start of a 40-year collaboration described as “one of the greatest drug‐discovery partnerships in history,” which included a Nobel Prize for medicine in 1998.

Throughout her career, Elion went out of her way to mentor young researchers, particularly women. She also ran a corporate program that provided mentoring and scholarships for women studying science and created a scholarship at Hunter College, her undergraduate university, for female graduate students in chemistry. In her retirement, one of her passions was encouraging other women to pursue a career in the sector.

Patricia Goldman-Rakic (1937 - 2003)

Being born into a different era, Patricia Goldman-Rakic faced fewer barriers to her study of neuroscience, gaining her PhD from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1963, and going on to become Chief of Developmental Neurobiology at the National Institute of Mental Health and later Professor of Neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine. A pioneer of cognitive neuroscience, her research into the brain’s prefrontal cortex and its relationship to working memory had profound implications for our understanding of schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease and dementia.

Goldman-Rakic was also renowned for her support for other women in science, never forgetting the early years of her career when she was very much a lone woman in a male-dominated field. In her obituary in Neuron magazine, Yale colleague Amy F.T. Arnsten wrote, “She served as a role model for countless numbers of young women who hoped that they too could make a difference in science.” Another former colleague said, “In the 21 years that I worked with Pat, I saw a steady stream of young women (and men) pass through her laboratory. In her own inconspicuous way, she nurtured the careers of many women in neuroscience.”

Whilst it’s important to honour the incredible achievements of these women, as well as the enormous progress that has been made over the years, the fact that International Women’s Day is still needed at all highlights that there are still issues.

For instance, it’s surprising that new research of 132 biotech, pharma and MedTech companies by Liftstream, a U.K. life sciences executive search firm has found that only 13 had women CEOS (10%), women made up only 15% of company board directors and just 2% of companies had appointed women as chair of the Board of Directors. 

Clearly, there is still progress to be made when it comes to Board diversity in the sector. I’m convinced that the best way forward is to continue to develop a more skilled workforce and ever improved career opportunities for young women seeking a career in healthcare, life sciences and pharma.