How one Belfast woman is breaking boundaries for women in STEM
By Roisin Molloy CEO TriMedika
I had an innate curiosity in science from a very young age, even asking for a chemistry set from Santa when I was 8 years old, after watching ‘Tomorrows World’ on TV. My interest in biochemistry then came from a love of how science could be applied to tangible problems. It’s about breaking down the problem, asking the right question, then applying fresh thinking to the answer. I believe that science can solve a multitude of global challenges when applied in the right way.
My parents told us every day that we could be whatever we wanted and the only person stopping you was yourself! When I said I wanted to study biochemistry my dad asked, ‘Why not medicine?’ However, I knew that it was what I wanted to do, but it didn’t come without some resistance. One day my teacher told my mum that I wasn’t capable of studying science. This was most likely as it wasn’t common for a young girl from Belfast to want to pursue a career in science.
My mum sat me down and said you have to ‘Prove them wrong’ That has been my mantra all through my career.
Whilst women now make up 24% of the workforce in STEM1 areas that certainly wasn’t the case when I was young and there’s still a long way to go to change perceptions of women in the industry.
Starting my career at a large pharma company I found that there were only 4 female research scientists in a team of 25 and none at management level. One male colleague told me that I needed to have lunch with the guys as it was the only way to get ahead in the company and differentiate myself from the other women!
The main reason for the small number of women in technology is due to the lack of role models for women within the sector and this is mainly down to the gender stereotype of ‘boys being better at science and maths’. Despite an increase in women entering high levels in technology roles in recent years, women remain in the minority compared to the number of male role models in the sector2.
Just 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women3.
Women face unique challenges when placed in leadership positions, something I learned along the way. Later in my career while leading sales and marketing teams of up to 88 people, I found they were always male dominated- especially at management level. Occasionally I came up against gender biases. For example, on one occasion a male manager refused to speak to me directly about my results and instead would regularly call my manager, as he was a man, to discuss my results.
By not enabling me to deliver my own results a situation arose where results were misinterpreted by the male managers. This then led to an embarrassing situation where I had to correct their misinterpretations during a department meeting. I always stood my ground as someone who was both experienced and confident in my ability.
A few years ago, I was passed up for promotion to Sales Director whilst employed as an international Sales Manager for over 3 years, despite having been essentially doing the job successfully for 2 years. The position was given to a man with less experience in the industry. Biases and discrimination against women continue to persist, and now a recent survey has shown that half of women have experienced discrimination in the UK tech industry4.
In 2016, my female colleague Julie Brien and Paul Molloy and I took the decision to start our own company, TriMedika. We felt that with our extensive industry experience, we could do it better than the competition and we wanted to make a real difference to people’s lives. My sister was ill with cancer at the time and after a long day of chemotherapy she turned and said to me, ‘if that nurse wakes me up to stick that thermometer in my ear again, I’m going to jump out of the window’. Whilst I couldn’t change my sister’s illness, I knew that I could make her much more comfortable and that’s been our driving force from the beginning; we refuse to settle for less than optimum patient care.
Some entrepreneurs spend all their time chasing Venture Capitalists for funding, taking their eye off revenue generation. But only 2.3% of VC investment goes to companies run by women5. Someone once said to me that ‘women are hired on performance whereas men are hired on potential’, yet the figures show that revenue yield is actually over 10% higher for female led companies6. It’s unsurprising that 20% of women have resigned in the past because of discrimination or harassment in the workplace7 as we have to work so much harder to prove ourselves.
We were turned down for start-up funding from VCs, but it gave us the determination to ‘prove them wrong’ and we have built the business on sheer hard work and determination.
Within only 18 months of starting TriMedika, we designed, developed, and launched to market the TRITEMP™ non-contact thermometer, despite being told by many it wasn’t possible in such a heavily regulated industry.
One thing that has always surprised me throughout my career is the competition from other women. In a survey by Harvard Business review a fifth of those surveyed reported that they felt like they were competing with their female colleagues for the ‘woman’s spot’, a common cause of conflict among women in organisations that are predominantly male8.
At TriMedika we encourage young females through our doors through various internship programmes and have hired some of the most promising young female talent in Northern Ireland.
‘The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up. Make sure you’re very courageous: be strong, be extremely kind, and above all be humble.’ Serena Williams.
We encourage all our employees to have a voice and to treat their ongoing development as priority, because if they choose to leave, we want them to go with more experience and qualifications than they came with to TriMedika. As a woman in STEM, a major success for me was being the first Northern Ireland company invited to the prestigious Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network summit in San Francisco in 2017, with only 150 female founders from across the globe invited to attend.
Another major coup was being named in the Maserati Top 100, as a game changing entrepreneur and more recently becoming a finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the year awards for 2021. To anyone who doubted us, these accolades speak for themselves. I hope that other young Northern Irish women are inspired by the success of two local female founders.
We try and reach as many young women as we can, through events and speaking opportunities such as Young Enterprise, ‘So She Did’ programme run by Ulster University and the recent All Ireland Female Entrepreneurs Conference.
My top tips for young women embarking on a STEM career would be
- Don’t listen to naysayers – prove them wrong and if it’s not a hell yeah then it’s a hell no from me!- Keep your focus on the end goal and the problem you’re trying to solve, visualise the successful outcome and don’t let anything distract you.
- Be kind to other women in the field and build a solid network, networking is critical for a successful career.
- Network, network, network. When you come up with a challenge don’t ask ‘how’ ask ‘who’ can help me with this because chances are someone has already done this before.
- Stand your ground – you can do anything – as NASA Scientist Katherine Johnson famously said ‘Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men’ and as my parents said, the only thing stopping you is YOURSELF!