History has shown that working roles for women can develop and diversify. But how is the science sector, so often regarded as a male-heavy environment, shaping up? What changes have women experienced and what’s it like entering the industry today? International Women in Science Day seems the perfect time to find out.

As a science-led company with a female CEO, H.E.L. has a deep interest in developing women and highlighting their role in our organization. Women hold a range of technical, management and sales roles across our international organization. About a year ago Purnima Parkhi joined our India office as an experienced field sales expert, with a 30-year career behind her. In contrast, Dr Mahek Merchant stepped straight from completing her studies at the University of Westminster to enter our London HQ.

Decades of change

A postgraduate student from the prestigious Department of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, India, Purnima was one of only 3 women on her course in the late 1980s. This low-number trend continued during her time at the Department of Chemical Technology. And it was still the case when she moved to work in analytical instrumentation for a range of Indian employers. Despite that she believes being a woman has never been an obstacle in her career, but that you need to be realistic about the present to create a better future.

Purnima Parkhi quote

Then, from about 2007 onwards, Purnima remembers seeing a shift. The number of women in the workforce started to grow, with more of them achieving senior management opportunities. And she reminds us that the trend is continuing. Today women makeup 28% of the global STEM workforce. There may still be a bias towards the biological sciences, but a growing percentage of women are joining broader science and technology fields.

Out-dated gender roles

Mahek’s university experience ended last year, having studied biomedical sciences on a life science campus. In contrast to Purnima, throughout her undergrad, postgrad, and PhD studies women were very much in the majority. A change indeed. Academics were nurturing and encouraged all students to see nothing limiting their achievements.

The only exception to this was the outdated view of gender roles held by her male supervisor. Undaunted, Mahek got him to overturn his decision to give a less experienced male team member a role he felt more suitable for a man, showing him that ability, not gender should be the deciding factor.

Mahek quote

Being put on the right track

Both Purnima and Mahek agree that more defined career paths would help attract women into the industry. Not asking for guaranteed roles but being given a clearer understanding of what’s possible in the next two years and the next few years after that.

Plus, more needs to be done at school level to explain the broad opportunities science offers. Mahek remembers at her single sex school that anybody with an interest in science seemed destined for a career in medicine. And if your grades weren’t quite there, the next option was biomedical sciences. Nobody had any other pathways in mind, and none were offered by the school.

To turn this around, she feels we must extend people’s understanding of what’s possible within science. We need to go beyond the blinkered view that an interest in science and math only leads to careers as a doctor, a pharmacist, or a banker. Children should be given realistic career options tailored to their strengths, shown that there is so much more available.

It comes from us all

Purima looks forward to the day when she is no longer identified as a woman scientist. “I wish people would stop thinking in terms of women scientists. We happen to be scientists, who happen to be women.” Past actions have changed the course of history and women must continue to be their own trailblazers in the science arena to achieve more.

Mahek backs this up by acknowledging that it is not only the actions of women that must bring about change. With still more to be done, events like International Women in Science Day raise awareness for all.

We’ll leave the last words to Mahek, “It doesn’t matter if anybody else thinks you can’t do it. As long as you think you can, and you try, that’s all you’ve got. You can only ever try. That’s how you’ll know if you can do something.

Thanks to Purnima Parkhi and Dr Mahek Merchant for being so open. This is just some of what they shared about their careers. You can hear more by watching their full interview.