When the request came in to the office for me to write a blog for International Women’s Day a few eyebrows raised, and wry smiles were observed. They all laughed at the thought of what Sarah would say in response to the question “What’s it like to be a female business leader in Life Science in Scotland?”. My Marketing Exec got particularly nervous at what I may say.
As a business biography fan, I’m familiar with the “fights to the top” and stories of those who have come from nothing to achieve greatness. I’m afraid my story isn’t so dramatic, and I feel I’ve yet to achieve that greatness. A lot of hard work, some personal sacrifices and little bit of “right place right time” have all got me to where I find myself today. The “where” is as CEO of Fios Genomics, a contract research organisation based at the Edinburgh BioQuarter. Our company provides bioinformatic data analysis services to pharmaceutical and biotech companies worldwide. I‘ve been with Fios for 6 years this year, 4 years in my current role having previously been Commercial Director and then Chief Operating Officer.
The CEO role was never something that I had originally included in the grand plan. Not because of any lack of ambition on my part, but because I felt I didn’t particularly fit the usual CEO mould. CEOs are male and 50+ years old, aren’t they? I was 36 years old and had just had my first child. I’m ashamed to admit that this didn’t even particularly bother me a few years ago as it was “just the way it was”. But was it the way it was or was it just my perception of the way it was? My recent experience is that the stereotype is no longer accurate of the real picture, particularly in Life Sciences in Scotland. I’m delighted my then-Chairman and Investors were brave enough to appoint me given my rookie CEO status. I would hope the fact I was female didn’t even come up in conversation.
I consider myself extremely fortunate that I haven’t knowingly “suffered” from sexual discrimination either positive or negative. I did have one would-be employer on the Continent tell me at interview that should I want the job I’d have to put any thoughts of having children out of my head as he needed “full commitment” for at least 3 years. I didn’t stick around long enough to ask if his concerns were around maternity leave or if he had the perception that once you’ve had kids, you’re not capable to fully commit yourself to work. Whilst I had no intentions of having kids at that stage, the attitude gave cause for concern so I voted with my feet when I was offered the position. Ageism (being too young) is an issue I have experienced although this is becoming less of a problem for me these days…. I still enjoy surprising people and maybe altering the perception of what demographic the person should be in a particular role.
I’ve just returned from a few months of maternity leave with baby #2 and I admit I feel under pressure to demonstrate that nothing has changed and it’s business as usual. Working mums put such pressure on themselves and I know I feel the need to work harder and be better to dispel any notion that my head isn’t back in the game. If I drop a ball here or there or make a decision that doesn’t work out as expected, people may think “it’s because she’s just had a baby and her priorities have changed”. No, it’s just ‘cause I had a bad day! For instance, on my first day back in the office I dropped baby #1 at wrap around care, baby #2 at the nursery and negotiated the 70-mile commute to baby #3 (Fios) in Edinburgh feeling a little smug at having achieved so much before 9am. All smugness evaporated when I caught sight of my reflection and realised I hadn’t put a brush through my hair. A small reminder you really can’t have it all.
I’ve used the word perception a few times above. For some, gender discrimination is a reality and all the recent initiatives/movements/marches have shone a spotlight on the issue once more and reignited conversations. The idea that I’d been given any opportunity based on anything other than merit fills me with horror: this is the reason why I’m against positive discrimination. Employers need to continue to work and invest in facilitating opportunities like flexible working and equal access to training for all, but I don’t believe creating quotas for women on private company Boards (for example) benefits the “cause” in the long run. Companies should create the right environment and culture so that anyone who wants the opportunities can get there on merit. Isn’t that what gender parity is all about?