To celebrate International Women’s Day this year, Kadans are delighted to spotlight Winnie Wu, the COO of GeneFirst Limited. Winnie joined the business in 2017, inspired both by a childhood interest in science, and a university course specialising in cell biology and genetics.

She works hard to make Genefirst a fair and equal workplace. Winnie finds that women often struggle to speak up due to fear of ridicule or dismission, and so she is constantly encouraging her female team members to offer and share their perspectives or takes on a situation or problem.

We asked her a couple of questions about her career, and influential women in her life like her role model: her mother.

The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #EmbraceEquity. What does this mean to you?

We’ve been hearing in the media about the difference between equality and equity, and it’s a very interesting subject because whilst most of us understand what equality means, equity is often discussed in terms of possessing or owning something in the financial sense.  For me, equity means being able to achieve the goal by having what one needs to do that.  In order words, it means recognising that we are all different, and that what we need in order to achieve that goal depends on our circumstances and opportunities available to us.  We do not all start off from the same place, and #embracing equity is acknowledging this fact so that we can start making changes and move towards an equity-based society.

As a Taiwanese-Canadian who has lived on 3 continents and spent the majority of my working life in the UK, the concept of equity is really interesting; whilst I feel that we, as a society, have a better understanding of what it means and its potential implications, there is still so much work to be done in terms of actually achieving this in the long run.

How did you get into a career in science? What inspired you to do so?

As a child I’ve always been interested in science, and in high school, I took biology, chemistry and physics for the final two years, and I must say that biology has always been my favourite out of the three.  When I went to University, I decided to specialise in cell biology and genetics, and whilst I found it challenging, I enjoyed what I was learning and wanted to be more “hands on” with that.  I found 2 laboratory-based projects in the department which gave me the experiences I needed before pursuing a PhD in the UK.

I’ve always been a firm believer that whatever you choose to do in life, it has to be for the betterment of society.  This may seem idealistic to some, though it’s a value that’s instilled in me from a young age, and it’s certainly carried through to my adult life in terms of my career choices.

What do you think employers could be doing to encourage women into the life science industry?

Wow where do I begin?!  I’ll answer this question using my experience as a manager.  In my role, I manage a small group of brilliant minds, and all of them bring something different to the organisation.  These differences, as a collective, is what drives the business and deliver results.  I am conscious that all of us are unique and have different ways of addressing issues or solving problems, and so it’s important, as an employer, to embrace these differences and understand each person’s strengths and what they bring to the organisation.  I hate to admit this, but often women do not speak up out of fear of being judged, challenged or ridiculed – I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that we have all seen, or experienced, this in the workplace at some point.  I am always encouraging the team, especially the women, to offer and share their perspectives or takes on the situation or problem.  Employers need to foster an environment in which everyone has an equal voice at the table, and to encourage those that may need a little bit more support and positive re-enforcement, to get there.

Who is the most influential woman in your life? How did they impact you?

I think the one woman who has had the most influence is my mom.  She has had a stellar career despite challenging circumstances in her upbringing that prevented her from going to university after finishing high school.  Regardless of these challenges, she obtained her university degree later in life, and followed on with a MBA degree, during which she was starting her own high-tech business in a highly male dominated environment.  Her perseverance and conviction in herself are qualities that I gained a new found appreciation for as I get older.  When I run into any work-related challenges or issues, my mom would be someone that I would go to for advice and support.

If you could have dinner with three inspirational women, dead or alive, who would they be and why?

Michelle Obama – I admire the way she carries herself, and the tremendous work she does in advocating access to quality education for girls and young women.  I loved the quote from 2009 where she said, “The women we honor today teach us three very important lessons. One, that as women, we must stand up for ourselves. The second, as women, we must stand up for each other. And finally, as women, we must stand up for justice for all.”

Karren Brady – Other than the fact that she’s super entertaining on The Apprentice, I really admire her for breaking the mould in a traditionally male dominated sport of football, and for campaigning for young girls and women to pursue business.

Rosalin Franklin – No explanation needed, Rosalin’s important work contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA!

What message do you want to pass on to young women thinking about pursuing a career in science?

Go for it – the world is a different place now compared to 26 years ago when I was first introduced to a Bunsen burner and learned about mitosis in class – there is just so much to learn and experience and so much good that women can do in science.  Make your mark, make a difference.

What inspires and excites you in your current role?

My work can be really crazy and hectic; no two days are the same and in a lot of ways, this is what I enjoy the most.  What really inspires me in my current role is seeing progress – I love it when new ideas are being talked about in the office, I can feel that buzz in the air and that something good is going to happen.  I love it when I see the team working together, helping each other out so that we can get to where we want to be quicker.  I often use the analogy of “what makes the boat go faster,” and it’s very rewarding to see this in action.

How do you hope the landscape will change for women in science over the next 5 years?

There are two changes that I hope to see over the next 5 years; first, I hope to see more women being empowered to pursue their passions, especially in science.  Secondly, I hope that as women, that we don’t feel the need to change ourselves to fit society’s expectations of what we can achieve or how we should behave, that we can be accomplished scientists and still be interested in fashion, that we can be strong leaders and love romance novels and have 4 cats, and that importantly, the conditions in STEM are more equitable for women.

What are some of the challenges that you overcame when pursuing your career?

Subconscious bias is a real thing.

The biggest obstacle that I have had to overcome is the perception of age and experience.  I often feel like I have to justify my position and how I got here.  Even after almost 5 years in my role, I still get asked some pretty amusing questions, for example:

  1. You look too young to be a COO
  2. You can’t be all that experienced, you don’t have enough grey hairs to show for it
  3. Are you in anyway related to the CEO?
  4. Being a COO in a large corporate is on a very different level to where you are

Secondly, it really saddens me when women feel threatened by other’s success – we NEED to support each other and not see each other as competition.  This situation is often exacerbated by toxic employers and workplaces where women are forced to display the “dog-eat-dog” mentality.

I am very happy to say that I have a group of supportive friends, colleagues and acquaintances that I can speak to without feeling the need to rationalise my decision-making, or my general being!

Why do you think we need more women in the life science industry?

For me, life science is about discovery, making an impact in the scientific community, and ultimately, making a difference to someone’s life.  We need more women to continue the good work that other women have already started.   Science is not indulgent and it is not about accolades or glory, it is about doing something good for mankind.  Studies have shown that girls and women place emphasis on careers that directly help the world or other people.  We need to do more to align STEM subjects and the job satisfaction that young women look for in their career paths.

What do you think are the misconceptions about working in the science industry?

One of the biggest misconception is that you are a lab rat forever if you work in science.  This is not true at all – there are so many different roles in industry, some of which are in the labs and many are not.  But they are both equally important and satisfying in their respective ways.

Another one is that if you move from academia to industry, it means you’ve moved to the “dark side” where it is soulless and dull.  Academic and industry actually aren’t that different, in both settings you need to have an idea, and it must be good enough to get funding, and once you have funding, you need to actually do the work to demonstrate that your idea works.  And when you’ve demonstrated that it works, you need to either disseminate or exploit the work to the relevant audience.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself when you were starting your career?

I’ve always been very comfortable with myself, and I have an cute awareness of my areas of strength and weaknesses.  If I can go back in time, I would tell myself to NOT focus on fixing the weak areas, but rather, focus on the strengths I have to really make them stand out.  We cannot be good at everything, and if we spend too long trying to perfect ourselves in areas that are perceived as “needing improvement,” we waste a lot of time by not further developing our strengths.

What actions do you take to work towards more equality in the workplace?

In terms of equality, it’s not just about numbers.  GeneFirst is one of the most diverse workplaces and I am proud to say that this is something that we’ve worked hard to achieve since I joined the business in 2017.  There are 9 nationalities and we are only a team of 15, and many of us are either bilingual or trilingual.

Inclusivity is very important at GeneFirst – we encourage the team to think outside of the box all the time, and that managers work with their team to foster new ideas and better ways of doing things.

To work towards true inclusion, however, we must do more to embrace equity in the work place, that we provide fair and equal opportunities to all team members based on their individual needs.  This is an area that I’d like to champion at GeneFirst, still a work to do here, and hey every day is a learning day!