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Nikki Yates, former nurse and now General Manager of GSK’s UK business, explains to TheNextWomen why showcasing creativity and collaboration is the key to attracting ambitious young women into science and engineering, and how everyone in the industry can help by sharing their own inspiring stories.

It’s true to say I’ve always been ambitious. But on my first day at nursing college, I didn’t imagine that I would one day become General Manager of GSK UK. There wasn’t one specific point that led me to where I am today, it was more a succession of positive choices and constantly looking for opportunities to develop.

I began my working life in the NHS as a nurse at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London but soon became fascinated by the important and challenging role that the pharmaceutical industry plays in bringing medicines to patients. So I joined GSK as a medical representative, which involved talking to healthcare professionals about our medicines. Nursing is a profession that attracts a large number of women, so it was a big change to move into what was then a rather more masculine environment.

I’m very competitive and was ready for the challenge; I found that being confident and knowing my subject area meant I was not treated differently because I was a woman. 

I’ve since gained business experience across a range of medicines in areas including respiratory, oncology, neurology, vaccines, HIV and anesthesia.  I was General Manager of GSK in Belgium and Luxembourg, where I gained experience working in a different country with a different culture and ways of working. Earlier this year, I became General Manager of GSK’s UK business. I feel a real sense of achievement that I started my career here as a medical representative and am now running the business.

As a female business leader, I often get asked my perspective on the challenges of getting more women into leadership roles. GSK has a fairly good gender balance: almost half our global workforce is female.

But a fundamental issue facing science-led organisations like GSK is that the talent pool of women who can become tomorrow’s leaders in science and technology roles is too small.

In the UK, young women are generally not choosing to study science, engineering, technology or maths (STEM) to a higher level. I believe they’re missing out on a fantastic range of jobs that have STEM subjects as their foundation. Latest figures suggest that only 22% of maths and computer science students are female, dropping to 18% for technology and 13% for engineering students. This is worrying. Where will we find the next generation of leaders who will discover future medicines or use new technology to improve the process of making those medicines?

Ultimately, a diverse workforce is critical for sustainable commercial success. At GSK, we want to maximize the variety and expertise our teams can bring to the work that we do. That’s why we want more young people, including women, to consider STEM education and careers. We try hard to promote STEM education by running science education activities in schools and taking a leading role in the Government’s Apprentice Trailblazers initiative. We also appoint people from around the business to go into schools in their local communities and act as role models and champions for STEM subjects.

Unfortunately, we’re working against a prevailing stereotype. Girls are often pigeonholed as better suited to studying arts subjects because they are creative and collaborative. And there is also a misguided perception that a background in science or engineering will, for example, lead to a solitary job in a lab or a factory. We need to do away with those misconceptions by showing school children that the best scientists and engineers are collaborative and creative.

We also need to showcase the important fact that studying STEM subjects will likely lead to better job prospects and greater financial rewards than most other subject areas. 

I represented the Women’s Business Council at a recent UN event to discuss the importance of encouraging women into STEM education and careers because I’m passionate about broadening young people’s aspirations and career choices. That’s not just in my role as a business leader, but also as the mother of two girls who will soon be choosing what to study at GCSE and then A-level, often career defining decisions.

I do my utmost to keep my girls interested in the possibilities of working in fields related to science and technology by telling them about my job and the kinds of projects that happen at GSK. My eldest daughter was fascinated when I told her about my visit to a clinical trial site in Kenya, where GSK is developing a vaccine to help protect children from malaria. Working on a clinical trial is a great example of a job within the field of science that brings you into contact with many people and has a meaningful purpose behind it, like developing a medicine that could potentially save thousands of lives.

It’s these types of stories and real world examples which can bring out the very human and dynamic elements of working in a science or technology based job.

Whether it’s working in drug discovery and distribution, or collaborating on engineering projects to improve infrastructure in developing countries, there is an inspirational story to be told about the value STEM careers can bring to the lives of others. And everyone who works in a STEM industry and knows this first-hand has the potential and the obligation to inspire the young people we know through our own words and actions.

If you’d like to see me talk more about the importance of inspiring women into STEM careers, please watch this video:

Nikki Yates is General Manager of GSK’s UK business. She has been working with the company for 24 years, having previously trained as a nurse. GSK is a science-led global healthcare company that researches and develops medicines and vaccines for a broad range of diseases.

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