Biotechnology & PharmaceuticalsView profile
The purpose of article series ‘Women In Science’ is to feature, showcase and share the reality of being someone that identifies as a woman in science. We gather and showcase stories, career journeys, as well as advice and wisdom.
Zahra: My name is Zahra Jawad I am the CEO founder of Creasallis a creative antibody solutions company. We are an award winning* start-up established about a year ago but the company really got going about 5 months ago. We were part of the accelerator programme at Babraham, which is where we are currently based, and we’ve just finished raising out pre-seed funding round at the end of 2022.
My background includes 17 years in the biopharma industry working in various Cambridge-based biotechs, all focusing on antibody engineering. My experience in industry showed me that innovation is really limited and challenging in industry – when you are running an innovation group the fight for resources is intense. Incubator space, equipment, people, time at the bench are all really limited because, at the end of the day, pipeline is king in any company. With this battle, there are one two reactions; either you deprioritise your work and your group ends up downsizing and eventually being made redundant, or, you have to fight. As a women when you start to fight this results in a lot of negative connotations, I ended up getting tired of being branded as the bossy one in the lab because I was fighting for my group, and fighting for our progress, and at this point I knew I had to start my own company to be able to innovate more freely.
*We were delighted to win the CambridgeLive Business Award as ‘Start up of 2023’ against all industries in Cambridge. We are honoured to be recognised so early in our trajectory building the company.
Zahra: There are challenges for everyone, and we must recognise that men also have their own challenges, but there are certainly specific challenges that women face that we can focus on here. A lot of the time women end up being the go-to domestic person, not every time but frequently women take on the majority of domestic tasks. If women have children, they often become the primary person taking responsibility for them, particularly initially, and this does impact on careers. And for women who don’t have children it is often the case that they take on more of the general domestic duties, organising homes, selling houses, booking appointments etc. and even when a bit older it’s generally the women who end up caring for elderly relatives and parents. This comes as a dilemma for a lot of women choosing between how much time they dedicate to their career vs how much time they give to their families, often splitting themselves between the two. This results in a lot of clever, talented women who just can’t thrive and progress in their career because they are just so thinly spread. We have all chosen to take these priorities on, but I think women are presented with these choices a lot more often than men. A lot of women are happy to sacrifice their work to bring up kids and/or take on domestic duties, until a point where their children have grown up, or parents no longer need looking after, then it is already too late and those opportunities have passed and they have to build it all up and fight all over again as if you were back at the start of your career.
There are a lot of women scientists at the Scientist/Senior Scientist level, but at the more senior levels the ratio of females to males decline.
Often for women to get ahead they have to become slightly more masculine which doesn’t suit a lot of women and prevents them from being their authentic self at work, which in itself is exhausting. There are ways of getting people to do things without shouting and getting angry or bossy. There are softer ways through which women are able to communicate, but actually a lot of these softer demands are missed at the management level meaning that women aren’t heard or they have to adopt an non-preferential communication style.
We are missing out by not being able to accept a different form of communication at the management level through women.
Zahra: I think at the young ages there are still a lot of women going into science and we are doing great from the education perspective. I see lots of young women entering the work market really inspired with fight in them, and that is great to see but overall, it’s after women have children that the space changes quite significantly and it is clear that the fight is gone.
Often when a woman has a child/children her employer may not offer her the same progression or opportunities because they assume that the women isn’t committed to their job. Actually, I found that this is often the opposite because when mothers get to work they are entirely focused on getting the job done and are often extremely efficient workers – they know they have to do their job then leave to pick their kids up from childcare at 6pm max. For a lot of mothers work and their job is a chance for them to be themselves, they get a break from mothering.
There is even more stigma around single parents, I have personally had several comments around this throughout my career, and that I perhaps cannot commit to my career like other woman can. Being the sole carer for a child or children makes you the only parental inspiration for that child. So career is often more important that just a salary for such women you are also a role model.
Zahra: I think that although most Life Sciences are quite gender-balanced there are other areas like bioinformatics, data, engineering, and physics are definitely still male. The male-domination of these industries can be off-putting for women so again, an acceptance of the alternative communication style would be beneficial to allow women to get to the top without having the fight.
I do think we have a lot of strong girls at primary school age, because that is how their parents have raised them, but then in secondary school this changes as the whole education system is about conforming and accepting, which is a real barrier to encouraging leadership amongst girls. It is sad to see young girls who are strong and independent in primary school lose their confidence in secondary school and become followers. Boys who are outspoken and proactive are recognised positively, and even if they say something stupid it can often be laughed off, and unfortunately this isn’t always the case for girls.
Zahra: Get yourself a mentor!
I know it is a bit of a cliché but having someone that you can trust who can just highlight where you are going wrong is invaluable. Ever since secondary school I’ve head mentors, either self-appointed or people I have sought out. Most of my mentors have been men – there are a lot of men out there who support When someone does support and mentor you, there may be somethings that are hard to hear. Take that as a gift, listen, then make an informed decision on whether it is fair or not.
Zahra: Get to know yourself to understand what you are good at, as well as what you are not good at. Receive all feedback!
Feedback, in my view, comes with 1 of 3 intentions:
So when you receive any kind of feedback work out where it came from, and if it came from a good place that is something you have got to take on board and listen to, however hard that might be.
Also, with a lot of women, don’t give up is my biggest advice. I know it is hard, and a lot of the time we do have to fight harder, but it is worth it. And finally, for women in science; support each other!