Celebrating Women in Science, with Dr Pauline Hili

Dr Pauline Hili, Founder of Nourish London, is also Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and one of the UK’s top Organic Skincare experts.
She reveals in this blog why more women with a STEM background should consider entering the Cosmetics & Toiletries industry.

Women in science: where we are

Women have contributed to science and chemistry since the age of alchemy, yet are still under represented in the upper echelons of the scientific and business world. According to the WISE campaign statistics of the UK labour market, women made up just 12.8% of the STEM workforce in 2015. Although at graduate level we are looking at a relative parity between female and male representatives, by the time we get to postdoctoral research roles, women are decidedly under-represented in the STEM subjects1.

This leaky pipeline is something that many companies and institutes are looking to address. The loss of experience and expertise is a significant waste of knowledge and national investment. The benefits of encouraging girls into STEM subjects and keeping talented women in science are numerous. Many countries now recognise that a productive and effective Science and Technology strategy has gender balance from the classroom to the board room. There is no evidence to support a gender difference in aptitude to science subjects. Girls need to be encouraged to take science and chemistry and develop confidence in these subjects. A study revealed that the differences in the achievements of girls and boys in the sciences had very little to do with skills and aptitude, but related to their confidence.

Considering a career in STEM

The Cosmetics and Toiletries industry is an excellent industry for women with a STEM background. A career in the cosmetic industry can offer women great flexibility to transfer across roles, tailor their careers to their lifestyle and is an ideal place to launch a second or third career. It offers opportunities across a range of areas from pure research, product development through to entrepreneurship and own brand development.

The cosmetics industry is science led and employs over 27,000 scientists in Europe from a range of disciplines. The nature of the industry lends itself to flexibility for women in terms of being able to cross from the laboratory to the boardroom, allowing the pursuit of further education, and taking time out for raising children.

One of the most attractive things about Cosmetics industry is the ease of skills transfers from other industries. I came into this industry literary by accident. Having qualified as a Chemist and Biochemist in Australia, I had worked for a few years in all aspects of malting and brewing before embarking on a travelling adventure in Europe. Having broken my ankle in a parachute accident and looking for work, I sat in a café in Soho and got chatting to the person beside me who suggested Neal’s Yard Remedies might need the help of a scientist. Luckily for me they did and a career that has now spanned 30 years began. Firstly, with Neal’s Yard Remedies and now with my own brand Nourish London, my chemistry degree has stood me in good stead to carve a career path with a myriad of opportunities and progression. Transferring the skills gained in other industries to the Cosmetics and Toiletries industry is relatively easy, as I found in my early career when moving from the brewing industry to the cosmetics industry.

The diversity of STEM backgrounds applicable in the beauty sector is also another reason why the cosmetics industry can be very attractive to women. All disciplines from chemistry, biology, physics, psychology, maths, microbiology, computer science, design and technology find applicability within the cosmetics sector. The explosion of social media and the application of technology to the beauty sector has opened another layer of career opportunities for women with a STEM background. Beauty tech is predicted to be a fast growing sector, as the quest for personalisation within the sector grows. Understanding, how and why women use technology will be crucial to fuel that demand.

Challenges, inspiration and support

The decision to have children can often interrupt a woman’s career path. In research, in particular, interrupting active service can result in the subject moving on without you. The buoyance of the beauty sector and the growth in required innovation, make it ideal for women wanting to return to research. Our industry is a product development led industry that offers ample opportunity for continuing in a research field. Every year a quarter of the products on the market are improved or are completely new. Demands for new innovative ingredients, improved raw materials and better packaging are just a few of the key areas needing strong research backed solutions.

Industries offering flexible terms for researchers to return to work stand to gain. Relationships between academic institutes and companies regardless of size, can be a valuable source of future income streams and for small business can be an integral part of being able to have a research strategy. It allows small companies to be on the front row of progress in the field of interest.

Developing a social infra structure that allows women and men equality in child rearing and developing programs within academic institutes to allow skills maintenance during this phase of one’s life would go a long way to encouraging women, to continue to pursue their research careers.

Flexibility to be able to continue academic research while taking on a commercial role was an important driver for my career choices. I was fortunate to have the support to do a PhD part time, while working 4 days per week and then go on to supervise 4 PhD in my field of interest on behalf of the company. This proved to be a ‘win win’ situation, it gave the company access to mentors and equipment that extended its capability way beyond what it could afford at the time. It enabled us to forge new connections that opened new opportunities for the business and a growing knowledge pool. Publishing peer review papers also aided credibility to the effectiveness of the natural raw materials that were being used in our products. This proved to be very important as the demand for proof of effectiveness of natural ingredients increased.

Having a supervisor who was female and the Head of Department was really inspirational and reminded me of what could be achieved. Females role models and mentors can play a strong role in helping to drive your career forwards.

The cosmetics industry has a long history of female entrepreneurs. Crossing the boundary from the lab to the boardroom can be a daunting prospect. Learning to manage risks and hazards is a key part of scientific training and these skills are extremely valuable in a business context. For women who aspire to have their own brand or business, the Cosmetics and Toiletries industry is extremely user friendly. My own experience of setting up a business has been challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

In 2012, we launched Nourish London, a natural brand deeply rooted in strong science. Almost 10 years later, Nourish London is sold in over 20 countries and continues to grow. My passion in this industry will always be for product development and having my own brand is the icing on the cake. Having a vision for a product and then using your scientific skills and working in a team to create it and bring it to the market is thrilling. I cannot describe the joy I get from creating a new product.

Dr Pauline interviewed colleague and STEM graduate Zaynab on how she got into STEM and what makes her so passionate about the industry. Watch the interview here.

1 D’Andola, 2016.