International Women’s Day (8 March) marks an annual call-to-action to press forward and progress gender parity. The campaign has gained increasing traction in recent years, with this year’s theme focusing on gender balance: #BalanceforBetter.
In this interview, we speak with Tamara Miller, Senior Director of Clinical Development and Strategy at Actinogen Medical (New South Wales, Australia) – an Australian-based biotechnology company – about what more could be done to promote gender equality in science, including any challenges she may have faced as a woman in STEM.
1.Please could you tell us more about your role at Actinogen?
Actinogen’s primary goal is to develop our lead drug compound, Xanamem®, to become a successful treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease. My role in supporting this goal is to lead the Clinical Development team in determining the scientific, clinical and regulatory pathways we must follow in order to demonstrate the efficacy of Xanamem in treating Alzheimer’s disease. To achieve these requirements, I am responsible for leading and managing in-depth discussions on study protocols; engagement with key opinion leaders and world-class academic researchers, and third-party vendors; and daily consideration of whether the agreed strategy is continuing to meet the company goals.
2.What led you to pursue a career in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries?
“…whilst I was certain I would remain in the sciences, as I had always been intensely in awe of all things science, I was unsure of how to turn this awe into a career.”
During early high school I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I loved, and still do, all things astronomy – it turns out though what I didn’t love to the same degree was mathematics. My brain craved a different type of creativity and whilst I was certain I would remain in the sciences, as I had always been intensely in awe of all things science, I was unsure of how to turn this awe into a career.
I graduated from high school and decided to do a degree in Biomedical Science – with an aim at the time to work in a medical laboratory upon graduation. I graduated from the 4-year advanced degree keen as mustard to start in the lab. I lasted there 2 years before I knew that being confined to only lab work did not suit me – I had heard on the grapevine the words ‘clinical research’ and so I contacted a recruiter, and soon I secured a role as a Clinical Research Associate with a Contract Research Organization.
3 months into this role I knew I had found my calling – research, in the field, liaising with many different types of people, travel, coordination, strategy and lots of opportunity to move into different roles.
Living and working thereafter in the UK and the USA expanded my skillset and experience significantly, as did completing a Masters in Pharmaceutical Sciences and several Diploma-level courses in Business Management and Project Management. I moved from Clinical Research Associate to Project Manager, Clinical Operations Manager, and on to Director of Project Management before moving into my current role at Actinogen.
3.Can you talk us through your typical (or not so typical) working day at Actinogen?
We have a small team and I report directly into Actinogen’s CEO; working with me are two wonderful individuals who report to me – a Clinical Development Manager & Clinical Development Associate, another Director who works alongside me and our Office Manager.
At present, we are running ten different pre-clinical and clinical studies, and the typical day involves communication involving most, if not all, of these studies. Communication can occur via face-to-face meetings, teleconferences, web conferences, telephone, or email, and the communication is either with our external clinical vendors or contractors, or internally with staff members or other stakeholders such as our Study Sites, Regulatory Agencies or Ethics Committees, our Clinical & Scientifics Advisory Boards, Contractors, the Board of Directors, or our independent Public Relations & Investor Relations firms.
“One thing for certain is that no two days are ever identical; new sets of challenges, milestones, deadlines, and issues can and do arise on a daily basis.”
Sometimes the communication involves updates on the progress of the studies, sometimes it involves issues or problems that need solving and resolution ultimately falls to me under the responsibility of my role. Other times, the communication involves reviewing company press releases or other media publications or preparing documentation such as Study Regulatory Submissions or Protocols or Reports, updating our internal Drug Development Plan, or writing Board Reports.
One thing for certain is that no two days are ever identical; new sets of challenges, milestones, deadlines, and issues can and do arise on a daily basis. Because of this, the role requires flexibility and responsiveness, as well as rapid yet considered decision making; it also requires me to be on top of many different tasks at any given time – something I enjoy immensely, thankfully!
4.Have you faced any challenges in your field due to your gender?
I’ve had wonderful opportunities made available to me, and at every chance given, I have grasped those opportunities with both hands.
Occasionally, it is impossible not to notice the deference given to men in the same or similar positions to me, versus the deference given to me. Sometimes I have been straight out ignored, or worse, acknowledgement of work performed has been given incorrectly to a male and not to me. Oftentimes, this behavior is delivered by men of an older generation to me – and I believe it’s a habit for some of them to simply defer to a male rather than a woman.
This generational difference is, slowly, disappearing however it is still present and at times I do feel it keenly. The worst outcome of this is that doubt starts to creep in, as a normal human reaction to any type of rejection, and I start to get that ever familiar feeling of imposter syndrome. Experience though has taught me not to waiver, not to doubt, that my work, my progress, the acknowledgement and recognition of those that mean the most to me is what is valid. The behavior of a small number of individuals does not define me or my attitude. It takes time to learn this and sometimes it’s painful, but always it is rewarding to come out the other side with your own personal integrity intact.
5.Did you notice any difference in opportunities available to women, or in how you were treated, as you gained more senior positions over your career?
“…a general observation is that there is this expectation that you must earn respect [from males in senior positions] when you are a female.”
In the biotechnology industry, I believe the female:male ratio is approximately 5:5; for every ten employees working in biotechnology, five are female and five are male. However, that ratio completely comes undone when it comes to management or board positions, with some sources citing that the female:male ratios for management or board roles is as low as 2:8 and 1:8, respectively.
This frustrates me. In an industry where there is, on paper, an equal number of female workers, the senior and executive positions are still overwhelmingly occupied by males. Why is that? Is it unconscious bias when hiring for these roles? Is the hiring process still being led by that generation who still defers to males? Are more males putting their hands up for these roles? It’s impossible to answer these questions in a black and white way as there is not one answer.
The gender gap in biotechnology, and clinical research, is complex and multi-variate. I can only speak from my experience that there are opportunities there for the taking. You need to step up, you need to work hard, you need to make sacrifices in terms of family time and you do need a strong and supportive partner at home. I believe these factors are still overwhelmingly tipped in favor of males, which is why they pursue the senior roles, and women do not. This is a real shame and requires a shift in thinking from both genders – women can, and do, hold senior positions whilst still being a wife and mum. Men have been holding senior positions whilst still being a husband and dad for centuries, with no criticism or research into how on Earth they manage to “have it all”.
Regarding how I’ve been treated as I’ve held gradually more senior positions over the years: a general observation is that there is this expectation that you must earn respect [from males in senior positions] when you are a female. I can’t comment as to whether this is the same for males, however my observations again tell me this is not the case – a 38-year-old male in my role seems automatically declared as competent and a good fit; meanwhile me as a 38-year-old female, I need to show my worth before I can enter any inner circle and be declared trusted and competent.
Again, this is my experience, though I am optimistic that the tides are slowly but surely changing.
6.In your opinion, what more could be done to promote gender equality in science?
There are two major factors involved: corporate/institutional culture and society.
“The bigger issue though is with society, holistically. Many things need to change. Why does gender bias still exist everywhere I look…”
With corporate/institutional culture, as with most paradigm shifts, change needs to be begin from the top. Otherwise, it’s called a revolution and there’s lots of war and fighting! In all seriousness, some organizations have a culture of endemic lack of gender diversity in senior positions. This will change only when those individuals already in those senior/executive positions change their mindset and adopt different practices.
The bigger issue though is with society, holistically. Many things need to change. Why does gender bias still exist everywhere I look – for example, when I see an advert on TV for Spray ‘n’ Wipe, it’s a female, a mother, that is using this cleaning spray. Or, an advert for a washing machine, vacuum cleaner, pram, towels, or even groceries – all females? Don’t males use any of these things?
Why are boys’ toys blue and girls’ toys pink, and nary a crossover can there be? In fact, why are they even labelled ‘girls’ or ‘boys’ by showing pictures of each on their respectively gender-assigned toy? Why are women told to “wear makeup”, “go on a diet”, “dye/straighten/curl their hair” etc. meanwhile men have far less demands on their images? Marketers and advertisers surely have a lot to answer for here and should appropriate some of the responsibility for changing these gender biases.
“Exposing children to gender stereotypes from the moment they are born is surely asking for them to adopt that same thinking.”
Regarding gender equality in science: it’s still overwhelmingly accepted and promoted that girls can be nurses, but boys can be doctors; boys can be engineers, but girls can be teachers. I believe it’s becoming more accepted that girls can be scientists, but female biotechnology CEOs or Board Directors…? There’s still a long way before that gap closes.
What can be done? Greater emphasis at schools on removing the gender biases associated with certain vocations; promoting STEM to girls and boys; removing unconscious and deep-seated biases around boys are good at math/science whilst girls are good at English/reading. Kids are so impressionable and they generally will live up to the expectations you set for them – change, therefore, needs to begin at a young age and needs to be driven by parents and educators, and by marketers and advertisers. Exposing children to gender stereotypes from the moment they are born is surely asking for them to adopt that same thinking.
Gender equality is seeing males and females as being of equal status and value. It is judging a person based on their merit, and not viewing them as inferior or superior purely based on their gender. There is still a long road ahead to promote gender equality in science, and generally, but again I am optimistic that we are finally moving down the road.
7.How might we involve more males in gender inequality discussions?
“Encourage men to speak up when they notice gender inequality being played out in the workplace – harassment, favoritism, prejudices – for example.”
One of the most important steps in increasing women’s representation in biotechnology is to NOT turn it into a box-checking exercise, for example by having mandatory quotas for Boards. Males, and females, rightly bristle at this, and this is entirely the wrong approach. What is needed rather is an overhaul of the industry’s culture, an example of a small step is to create settings where women and men forge professional links in a substantive way – I don’t have exactly the answers on how to do this, however this principle is, I feel, a good one.
Men need to walk the talk and lead by example – this is always the best way to influence change. Encourage men to speak up when they notice gender inequality being played out in the workplace – harassment, favoritism, prejudices – for example.
Also, again, begin the discussion with males at an early age – teach them that fairness is not optional, teach them that they are no better than females and females are no better than them. Tell them it’s OK to cry and be emotional, that it’s a wonderful aspiration to be a nurse, that it’s OK if they want to play netball and not football. Shatter those unconscious gender biases right from the beginning – foster an inclusive environment at home, and as parents also lead by example.
8.And lastly, what advice would you give to young scientists hoping to pursue a career in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries?
I am truly optimistic that the next generation of women entering biotechnology will truly benefit from the changes occurring today.
My most straightforward advice: if you want something, go get it. Do the hard work on the frontline and develop solid relationships, relationships with sponsors and mentors, people who believe in you. Work out what you need to do to get where you want and then do it.
Often a leap of faith is required, and please know there will never, ever be a moment in time when all the stars align and a situation is suddenly perfect for you to go after an opportunity. You must recognize an opportunity, take the leap and if you truly want it, it will all work out. Yes, you will be challenged and your limits will be pushed, but wonderfully, it is only then that you grow and develop and shine bright. Trust me, I know.
BIOGRAPHY – TAMARA MILLER
SENIOR DIRECTOR OF CLINICAL DEVELOPMENT & STRATEGY, ACTINOGEN MEDICAL AUSTRALIA
Tamara completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Science degree in 2001 and then worked in research laboratories before starting as a Clinical Research Associate; a move to live and work in the UK as a Project Manager, then to the USA as a Clinical Operations Director followed.
Returning to Australia, Tamara began a role as Director of Project Management and completed Project Management Professional Certification, a Diploma in Business Studies, and a Masters of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Tamara also held a Board Director role with ARCS Australia (Sydney, Australia).
With Actinogen since 2017, Tamara currently manages the entire drug development process within the company.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Neuro Central or Future Science Group.