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Why is Diverse Leadership in STEM Important?

Five industry leaders discuss how their organizations have successfully created inclusive, diverse work environments

Jacob Midwinter

Jacob Midwinter is the director of search by SRG and Client Solutions at SRG.

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Each year, more leaders are increasing their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. In 2022, 92 percent of CEOs built DEI into their strategic priorities and goals, but more than a quarter of leaders believe that we’re not doing enough. 

Inclusive leadership, where diverse voices have an equal platform, drives almost twice as many high-value innovative ideas than non-inclusive leadership models. Moreover, inclusive leadership creates a positive environment of psychological safety and fulfilment, where employees are 3.5 times more likely to realize their potential.  

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In the STEM industries, where innovation underlies business success, diverse teams and inclusive leaders are business critical.

In this article, we discuss the growing importance of diversity in STEM and inclusive leadership with five STEM leaders:

Julia Buckler, head of assay development, MDx at QIAGEN
Julia has worked in biotechnology for 15 years. In her current role she leads QIAGEN’s IVD Assay Development team to deliver quality diagnostic products for oncology and infectious disease applications.
Amy Smith, PhD, people director at CPI
Amy Smith is people director within CPI's Strategic Leadership team. Amy leads strategies that drive well-being, develop the incredible capabilities of CPI’s people, and create an inclusive workplace to ensure everyone across the organization feels valued.
Rich McLean, chief operating officer at Global Pathogen Analysis Service Ltd (GPAS)
With a career spanning health care, life sciences, and continued work in the charity sector, Rich has experience in managing large-scale operational teams at Amazon, Pfizer, and LGC. At GPAS Rich is responsible for business operations, and oversees IT, finance, and legal functions.
Garry Pairaudeau, PhD, chief technology officer at Exscientia
Garry Pairaudeau joined Exscientia following an impactful career at AstraZeneca as vice president of hit discovery and chair of the Global Chemistry Leaders Network. At Exscientia, Garry is dedicated to transforming drug discovery through new innovative techniques.
Charlotte Deane, chief scientist of biologics AI at Exscientia
Professor Charlotte Deane (MBE) is chief scientist of biologics AI for Exscientia, and professor of Structural Bioinformatics at the University of Oxford. At Exscientia, Deane drives the application of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the design of protein structures in the discovery and development of novel drug candidates.

How does diversity in senior scientific roles benefit a team and the wider business?

Rich McLean
Rich McLean

Rich McLean: Inclusion, equity, and diversity are sources of competitive advantage and growth enablers. Introducing gender, ethnic, and age diversity into senior scientific roles means conveying a new perspective to the STEM world and enhancing representation for future generations.

GPAS, being in the first year of its journey, had the opportunity to create a brand new team with a highly inclusive senior leadership able to harness the value of different thinking styles and ensure that everyone's diversity is played at its best.

Amy Smith: Diversity for me, is complex and intersectional—an identity is made up of more than one aspect alone. Factors like socio-economic background and

Amy Smith
Amy Smith

neurodiversity play an important role alongside the more widely referenced groups. However, regardless of how you define diversity, its benefit is the same—it brings diversity of thought and delivers better outcomes.

Different experiences and perspectives enhance concepts and products, no matter what you’re working on. Moreover, a more diverse group creates a more enjoyable inclusive environment where people are more likely to thrive and succeed.

Julia Buckler: I’ve been fortunate to see the benefits of diversity first hand with QIAGEN’s diverse leadership team.

When it comes to discussing new proposals, we benefit from the diversity of perspectives our team have, enabling us to improve our plans from the start and strategize the best route forward. As a leader, I see the value in how even when we don’t always agree, our joint resolutions shape and optimize our results. To successfully enhance diversity overall, it’s important to build a team who are positive about diversity of thought and understand how to leverage it to strengthen ideas.

Garry Pairaudeau: Opportunities should be open to everybody. The diversity of thought and creativity that a more diverse team brings are extremely valuable to our mission at Exscientia, where we aim to transform how the world discovers medicines by applying artificial intelligence to the entire process. Transforming the industry in this way is no trivial task and so innovation, creativity, and imagination are essential. If you hire the same types of people with similar experiences and backgrounds, you can sometimes get similar ideas and ways of thinking.

What are some of the challenges that need to be addressed when it comes to equity and diversity in leadership?

Garry Pairaudeau
Garry Pairaudeau

Garry Pairaudeau: Finding a diverse set of candidates can take longer but it is essential. Some diverse groups may be less likely to step into certain companies, and there are typically fewer diverse individuals in some candidate pools. With this in mind, it’s important to ensure that the way you interview and structure your candidate journey is inclusive. Alongside this, it’s important to keep hiring decisions focused on proficiency—no one should be hired because of a characteristic.

Charlotte Deane: You only ever employ people because they are going to be brilliant at the job, and that requires get a diverse set of candidates because brilliance is

Charlotte Dean
Charlotte Dean

everywhere. Then, when it comes to development you need different types of support within an organization to encourage some people to consider stepping up to the next level. Diversity in leadership is then essential to understand different types of people who have the potential to excel and to activate opportunities that ensure that your organization has a pipeline of the skills you need with the widest range of individuals across teams.”

What key factors improve diversity in STEM leadership?

Rich McLean: Cognitive diversity is an essential and sometimes overlooked piece of this puzzle. At GPAS, we aim to include people with different ideas, problem-solving strategies, and mental perspectives, shaped by their experiences and background, like culture, gender, and sexual identity.

For me, this means hiring for culture-add rather than culture-fit. In other words, we intentionally hire people who are not alike, which can add diversity of viewpoints and innovative perspectives.

Julia Buckler
Julia Buckler

Julia Buckler: It’s important to understand the value of diversity and evolve processes to maximize its potential in the workplace. For example, while people often approach hiring in terms of trying to tick all the boxes for a particular role and description, hiring with your team in view is much more powerful. If you can assess what skills, perspectives, and ideas you have, and what perspectives you might be missing, you can approach maximizing diversity of thought in a way that actively mends skills gaps, and ensures you organically build the team you need to succeed.”

“Coaching and mentoring are other key factors to improving diversity in leadership, particularly speaking from my experience as a disabled female leader. Having a private space to bring together your thoughts with a coach, or mentor can help you balance your ideas and succeed in your endeavors.

Amy Smith: Our goal at CPI is to hire the best possible person for a position and create diverse teams—this means making the recruitment process as inclusive as possible to ensure that we get the broadest selection of potential candidates. This can include recruitment practices such as blind CVs, to ensuring that your recruitment panel is diverse, and offering flexible working practices.

When it comes to enabling diversity in internal hiring, it is integral that there is investment in staff development and that opportunities are communicated across teams without elitism. Additionally, for people to thrive, they need to operate in psychologically safe workplaces. Educating leaders on psychological safety and supporting a model of inclusive leadership are two other major factors to paving more opportunities for diverse individuals in leadership.

Summary: sharing ideas to enhance improvement in the STEM industry

While DEI should be personable and actionable to your organization, the advice and insight shared by these experts can help to inspire ideas for your own organization to implement and enhance its DEI approach. 

Overall, diversity in leadership positions means leading from the front to enable positive change throughout the wider business. When you introduce more diversity to your leadership positions and workforce, you encourage different ideas, perspectives, and ways of thinking, giving your business a creative edge whilst creating a more inclusive working environment for all. 

Having a leadership team that is willing to coach and mentor individuals, whilst helping to open the door for career progression of more diverse groups, can really make a difference to a company’s overall culture. Leaders are the ones that can spot issues, barriers, or gaps in DEI, and put processes and training in place to tackle them, enhancing overall business success. 

In addition, a big contributor to a business’s DEI is how robust  its hiring process is, removing barriers to enable more inclusivity by, for example, using blind CVs, creating tailored and flexible working packages, advertising on a variety of platforms,  resulting in culture-add, rather than culture-fit.