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Life as a woman working in science

Posted: 20 February 2020 | | No comments yet

Following International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020, New Food hears from Dr Kavita Karnik, Vice President, Global Nutrition and Open Innovation at Tate & Lyle, as she describes what it is like as a woman working in science.

Less than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women, according to UNESCO data (2014-16).1 International Day of Women and Girls in Science serves to change this.

In 2015, the General Assembly decided to create an annual international day which recognised women and girls in science and technology.

“If we are to be able to address the enormous challenges of the 21st century – from climate change to technological disruption – we will need to rely on science and the mobilisation of all our resources. It is for this reason that the world must not be deprived of the potential, the intelligence, or the creativity of the thousands of women who are victims of deep-seated inequality and prejudice,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director General.

The hope is that this globally celebrated date (11 February) will encourage more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) roles and remove the barriers which hold them back.

“On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020, UNESCO is calling on the international community, States and individuals to work together so that equality in the sciences and other fields can finally become a reality. Humanity has everything to gain– and so does science,” Azoulay continued.

A female nutritionist

In her role as Vice President of Global Nutrition and Open Innovation, Dr Kavita Karnik manages Tate & Lyle’s nutrition division, which supports teams spread across 30 countries and serves customers in around 120 countries. Through its Open Innovation programme, she also works with colleagues in research and development to ensure they’re staying on top of key ingredient and food trends, always asking the question: “What next?”

As a nutrition lead within a food and beverage ingredient producer, Dr Karnik works with her team to collaborate with leading research organisations and undertake the foundational research on new ingredients including their safety, tolerance, the benefits they bring and appropriate usage levels. This research, conducted by leading academic institutions and subject to robust scrutiny, helps regulators make decisions about how these new ingredients fit in a formulator’s toolbox.

women in science“Food and drink companies use our innovative ingredients to help reduce calories, address a ‘fibre gap’ in people’s diet, and deliver great taste without spiking blood sugar, for instance, helping health professionals to support individuals with their health or dietary challenges,” Dr Karnik said.

“In addition to the foundational science we conduct, nutrition-leads within businesses such as ours must have great communication and other soft skills, so they can translate nutrition science for the product developers they work with, and ultimately, be effective members of multi-functional teams.

“Unlike the traditional image of a scientist, nutritionists are rarely lab-bound, but can often be found presenting science out in the world, in customer meetings or sessions for health professionals, while also working with a host of expert organisations to find ways to drive forward nutrition knowledge. We have to be proficient in simplifying complex science for maximum understanding and impact.”

Dr Karnik explained that as a senior, in order to get the best out of her team – 80 percent of whom are female, she has worked hard to foster a team culture that measures success through the delivery and quality of work and allows for flexible working.

“This ethos is not unique to my team,” she added, “as a business we work to support a healthy work-life balance, and through this and other efforts we have made great strides in boosting female representation in senior roles, seeing a 50 percent increase in female leaders at our global leadership team level over the past three years.”

Stigma and stereotypes

She continued: “Generally speaking, and I suspect especially in STEM areas, women often need to deliver above and beyond what is expected of their male peers to get those top jobs or be recognised as a subject matter expert. Irrespective of their field of work, I believe women want to be treated equally, not given special treatment or handled with kid gloves, just a fair deal and equal opportunities. As we know, this isn’t every woman’s experience.

“Growing up in India, in a strong patriarchal society, I have always been aware of the gender-driven disparity within the society around me, in every aspect of life, irrespective of the socioeconomic background.

“As someone who regularly works with research scientists, customers, and academics around the world, I encounter a range of different perspectives, attitudes, and stereotypes every day. It is important to always be respectful while maintaining one’s authority as a subject matter expert. As many female scientists working in global roles will also no doubt find, at times and in certain settings, I have to work harder to prove my credentials. Working within a multinational company has its benefits, with many different cultures working together, so our people have exposure to different ways of working and a wide range of role models.”

Dr Karnik explained that during her time working in the science and business communities, she has often noticed that treatment on the basis of gender manifests itself in subtle ways. “I believe most of the times it’s well-intentioned: well-meant questions around a woman’s ability to travel to a meeting, to manage a heavy workload or demanding project, or perhaps whether they would be comfortable leading an all-male group of stakeholders at a work event,” she said. “Where it moves from subtle to cynical can be the questioning of a woman’s ability to work with numbers or understanding the mechanics and demands of business. For female scientists, who are often in the minority, it can be challenging being the only woman in a room full of men at meetings or events. Over the course of my career, I have learnt to focus on my work and always maintain professional composure.”

All I expect is for my voice to be heard equally to that of my male counterparts.

Dr Karnik has worked in nutrition-related roles for more than 15 years, and told New Food that in her experience there can be a perception that nutrition science is “women’s work” and somehow related to cooking, an area that ultimately doesn’t constitute ‘hard science’.

“This couldn’t be further from the truth!” she remarked. “Nutrition science improves the food we put in our mouths each day and an unhealthy diet is one of the major risk factors for a range of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and other conditions linked to obesity.”

Today, the role of nutrition sciences in food and beverages has never been more important, she told New Food, pointing to the public health challenges we currently face, such as obesity, diabetes and an ageing population.

“Food and beverages are no longer just a source of energy, they need to be a source of wellness. Most business leaders in this area now recognise that a health and wellness strategy and programme is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it is a fundamental part of a forward-looking company’s business strategy.”

She added: “For those women and men passionate about making a difference to public health, I would urge them to consider a career in this industry as it is a way of touching many people’s lives every day. As a nutrition scientist, having the opportunity to explore evidence behind the role of food and ingredients, and then to help bring it to life with our customers, is the best job I could have asked for. I get to do ‘real science’ and help translate that into usable insights to improve public health. When I think back on some of the customer partnership I have supported, I am proud to know that I have helped my technical colleagues to take billions of calories out of diets, and add nutrients such as fibre into great-tasting products that can thrive on the market.”

She concluded: “It is a really exciting time to be a nutritionist in industry and, while there is unquestionably still work to do to achieve gender equality for those working in the world of science as in many non-science fields, I believe progress is being made. Team and business leaders must play their part in recognising the knowledge, talent and contribution of people in their team, irrespective of gender. It’s not rocket science.”

About the author

Dr Kavita Karnik is the Vice President of Global Nutrition and Open Innovation at Tate & Lyle PLC, a leading global provider of food and beverage ingredients and solutions that lower sugar, fat and calories in products, and enrich them with fibre.

Kavita is provides leadership in the Innovation and Commercial Development unit on nutrition science. She is involved in new product development and providing credible scientific support for new and existing products by leading a strategic nutrition science research and education programme. She is also responsible for exploring Open Innovation opportunities that are of strategic relevance to Tate & Lyle’s current business and future expansion.

She has previously held various global roles in nutrition and health-related commercial environment for multinational corporations such as Unilever, Pfizer and Nestle. She has been involved in academic research by holding various academic positions at the University of Surrey, UK; the University of Derby, UK (current); Cranfield University, UK; and the Institute of Clinical Research, India.

After completing a Degree in Medicine in India, Kavita received her Masters and PhD in Nutrition from the University of Sheffield, UK. She successfully obtained scholarships in India, including from J N Tata Trust, to attend the Masters in the UK and then from Glaxo SmithKline for her PhD. In addition, she holds a Diploma in Nutrition and Health Education.

This piece was co-authored by Bethan Grylls, Editor of New Food.

References

  1. https://www.un.org/en/observances/women-and-girls-in-science-day

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