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04. May 2005

Gillian Samuels © Martina Handler

Gillian Samuels 2 © Martina Handler

Gillian Samuels 3 © Martina Handler

Gillian Samuels 4 © Martina Handler

Edit Schlaffer interviewing Gillian Samuels (left), a role model for women in science.

Gillian Samuels – Sometimes the answer “No” is just a challenge for the future

The expert for Women in Science was interviewed by Edit Schlaffer:

Dr Gillian Samuel, CBE, Executive Director of the Pharmaceutical company Europe Pfizer Global Reaserch and Development, is a typical example from the group of highly talented, highly motivated female natural scientists, who emerging as a new voice in science and development, actively promote the role of women therein. 

Edit Schlaffer: We have heard from Hillary Clinton, how she was about to become an astronaut, she really wanted to go for it and then she was told that women are not yet qualified enough for such an ambitious career. So things have changed dramatically since then but still there are so many stepping stones. How did you overcome all these hurdles in your life?

Gillian Samuels: Well, sometimes the answer “No” is just a challenge for the future. One shouldn’t think that women are the only people who get the No-answer. Some of my best work has been done because people have sad “No” to me, which just calls me to go back, to rethink and to work on the proposal in a different sort of way. If you are convinced that it’s something important usually the issue is whether you can convince somebody else of the importance of it. For me, “No” is not necessary a bad answer.

E.S.: So you are talking about the inner barriers. I think to consider those is also very important because usually we are so drawn into that whole discussion about what does not function in the societal context, without realising how we block ourselves.

G.S.: You are right but also if you are a scientist and you design an experiment and the answer to that experiment as it were is “No” but actually the experiments worked. Then you go back and redesign the experiment to find out what was correct. And it’s the same sort of thing in real life sometimes

E.S.: That’s a nice philosophy for all kind of areas, relationships, that’s nearly a recipe. You can be considered, I think, as one of the pioneers who made it in natural science and also somehow challenged natural science to a certain extent. And you came into the field when it was quite unusual for women to make an appearance there. So how did that happen?

G.S.: When I came into industry it wasn’t that there were no women coming in. There were quite a large number of women qualified in natural sciences. Not all of whom would have thought of industry as an option, so I have colleagues who stayed in academia and many of them have made there way to senior positions. Progress in any career is in part related to training and experience, it’s in part related to personality and how you respond to challenges and in part related to your ability to interact with other people. As a scientist it’s easy to think that science will sell itself but that’s not true and not everybody sees what you see at a particular date.

E.S.: Listening to you, I have the impression it’s a very exciting adventure, it’s a journey that is really worthwhile travelling. But why do women give up? Of course there are family obligations, there are a load of alternative life concepts, there are competing challenges, but nevertheless why do women always decide to go the other route -although looking at the divorce rates - it’s not such a successful route per se.

G.S.: Well I don’t think women do always choose to give up; there are numbers of women who certainly have not given up and a lot of young women coming through now. I don’t think that women who decide to spend more time bringing up their children are making it as it were a negative choice, many of them are making a positive choice, they want to be with their children and that is more important to them than working in a business and it’s a huge investment that women make. I would say that every woman who has managed a household and a family and brought up kids has got the equivalent of an MBA basically.
So when they want to come back they are very well positioned in terms of experience. But by that stage sometimes they don’t want to come back and of course still many jobs are structured in a very linear fashion. Thinking in a purely linear career has disadvantages, not just the individuals, who have that career or who could have that career, but society, who could benefit from what those individuals, have to bring. If you come back to work after a career break you bring a whole lot of useful experience.

E.S.: But that would imply that one looks at this whole issue in a gender-sensitive way. So that men might be included in a kind of different package as well how they approach life and career.

G.S.: Absolutely. It’s interesting to see when you talk to men about the way careers can be structured and make some of these alternative proposals, how attractive those proposals are to men. It’s possibly more politically correct for a woman to suggest these alternatives.

E.S.: You mentioned something interesting saying that society invests a lot in women and somehow we must find a solution so that this investment is worthwhile. Otherwise why bring that many women into the field if they don’t stick to their commitment? But this probably is about the infrastructure and also about the atmosphere and the whole ambience…

G.S.: I think it’s about infrastructure, it’s about role models, it’s about mentors, it’s about getting people to think about carriers rather than jobs, long term planning.
When my colleagues have had a poor experience in academia they believe that industry will be the same and in fact, as far as I can tell, it’s easier in industry. Everything is much more transparent and accountable as we were discussing last night. And there is generally more fluidity in industry, in other words there is a wider range of jobs that you can do. And indeed many people who we take are now doing jobs which are only partly related to their initial qualification. Not because they are poor at doing what their initial qualification qualifies them for, but because they have many, many other skills and industry gives an opportunity to people to capitalize, to find first of all and then to capitalize on those additional skills. And there is a much wider range available to somebody coming into industry which is lots of fun, believe me.

E.S.: Many governments, and ours, are now very interested to look how women's capabilities can be enhanced especially in the field of natural sciences. And education is quite poor because girls seem to be quite reluctant to take up maths, physics and so on and there is a lot of resistance towards this. So if you would look at that issue strategically what would you suggest to motivate girls into this area?

G.S.: I think it starts very early. It starts right at primary school. It’s really to do with the human interest within the sciences. It’s quite possible to teach science in a very cold way and I think that’s why a lot of women perhaps go to things like psychology sciences instead of engineering. But there is a human side in all the sciences. It’s the application of science which I have always found fascinating. It’s what you can do with science in a way which benefits society and that is going to be particularly true as we move forward in Europe with an aging population. I believe that the sciences can do a lot to enhance quality of life. But besides all, science is such good fun. Where else could I have gone to have a job where I work with a wide range of people, both nationally and internationally, in an area of science which produces a product, a medicine which benefits society not just in the north but also in the south, not just in the developed world but in less developing countries and helps in sustainable development.

E.S.: But your name is closely connected with enhancing the quality of the male life …

G.S.: You are talking about Viagra. There were many of us who worked on Viagra. These days' medicines are discovered and developed by a large team of people so I was just one of them.

E.S.: And what have you thought about that?

G.S.: Well, I think it was a very interesting medicine to work on. In particular because it’s one of those areas, one of this disorders which is very easy for people to laugh at and treat it in this odd way. But if you could have experienced what I have experienced, you would not see it that way.
Letters from patients we’ve received, particularly in the clinical trials, men saying: please let me remain in the clinical trial, this medicine, this potential medicine has stopped me beating my wife, another letter saying it has stopped me killing myself. This is not a trivial problem it’s a part of a relationship. So it was a great project to work on.

E.S.: That is really a new perspective!! Thank you for the interview.


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