The second Tuesday in October is Ada Lovelace Day, named for the daughter of Lord Byron (that Lord Byron, yes) who is regarded by many as the first computer programmer. If you’ve been in IT for a while, you’ve probably heard the name Charles Babbage, or at least about his design for an Analytical Engine. You may not know that Babbage and Lovelace were friends, and that it was she who first recognized the potential of the engines Babbage designed.
Since the 1840s, however, women have continued to struggle to gain parity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The recent book and movie, Hidden Figures, highlighted a piece of this struggle. In Delaware, the second Thursday in October is Inspiring Women in STEM Day, an event held annually by the Delaware BioScience Association. This blog post ties those threads together to illustrate the various career paths of women in laboratory informatics.
In the last 20 years, CSols has maintained a steady complement of women consultants as project leaders, business analysts, and developers. Historically, our staff of consultants has averaged 20% women and currently it is approximately 24%. In this blog post, we’ll present some insights from the women we’ve known about pursuing a STEM career in laboratory informatics.
The importance of STEM education and its role in developing laboratory informatics experts is well known. However, the issue of how to keep women in STEM fields is also well-documented. A recent study about the gender employment gap in technology showed that 50% of women who begin their careers in technology in the U.S. eventually abandon the field for a variety of reasons. Beyond the disparity in employment, the gender pay gap is also larger in STEM fields than in other occupations. This is at least in part due to the fact that women are over-represented in lower-paying health care jobs and is not necessarily true of jobs in laboratory informatics. At CSols, men and women with comparable experience and education are compensated equally.
One of the best ways to encourage greater diversity in any setting is to increase visibility through representation. To that end, we asked female laboratory informatics professionals to share their career paths and what drew them to laboratory informatics in the first place.
The majority of the respondents to our informal survey had a strong interest in science from an early age. However, one was focused on art and music until she took chemistry in high school, and one arrived at laboratory informatics as a second career. Although it is possible to obtain a degree in various informatics disciplines, none of our respondents have degrees in bioinformatics or health informatics. The respondent who came to laboratory informatics as a second career had gone back to school for a degree in computer science. Along their career paths to their current roles in laboratory informatics, our respondents have held roles in quality assurance, document control and technical writing, industrial chemistry, clinical life sciences research, and laboratory management.
At some point in their careers, all of our respondents discovered a passion for LIMS development and programming, although none of them had been interested in computer science growing up. A number of them mentioned the ability to solve real problems with data as a key driver of their choice to pursue laboratory informatics as a career. It was clear from the interviews we held that laboratory informatics offers these consultants a way to blend their many different skills and apply technology to make improvements in the laboratory—and this continues to fuel their passion for their work.
Team building, persuasion, collaboration, networking, and empathy—traditional soft skills in which women excel—are important to success in the workplace. These skills are especially important for project leaders in laboratory informatics. One of the best ways to ensure success with a LIMS, ELN, SDMS, or CDS implementation is effective organizational change management, a process that requires those soft skills. This is best done by consensus building, listening to stakeholders, and being empathetic to the end users’ needs.
However, barriers exist for women’s ability to turn those soft skills into success in the workplace. It is crucial to find ways to overcome those barriers and increase gender diversity in STEM fields generally and laboratory informatics specifically.
One way to do this is to reduce the barriers to entry, by exposing females to computer science earlier in their lives, through programs such as Girls Who Code; or by increasing access to coding skills without the expense of a college degree, through programs such as Free Code Camp, the Flatiron School, or ZipCode Wilmington. Another way to do this would be to increase active retention measures by working to support women who choose the STEM fields as courses of study in college, before they ever enter the workforce. A significant step in the workplace would be to counter the effects of unconscious bias in hiring practices.
As one of our respondents mentioned, the right mentor can make a significant difference to anyone’s career. Finding a woman who has had success in the laboratory informatics field and who can help you navigate your own path is a real advantage.
If Ada Lovelace were alive today, perhaps she would have drawn on her experiences with Charles Babbage to mentor younger women with the same interests but without the same privilege and access.
What barriers do you see for women in laboratory informatics, or in STEM fields more broadly?
Did we miss anything or provide information that surprised you or challenged your understanding?
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