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Sharing gender balance wisdom to create a more diverse post-pandemic STEM future – Kay Hussain, Chief Executive Officer of WISE


Kay Hussain is chief executive officer of WISE, the campaign for greater gender balance in STEM. Kay joined WISE in February 2021 from her previous role as a managing director in the pharmaceutical industry. Kay has two decades of leadership experience in STEM based organisations.

Kay Hussain - WISE
Kay Hussain

“To recover from the pandemic, we need all the innovation we can muster to build back stronger and quicker. This is an opportunity to draw on the talents of everyone in our organisations, not only will this help in the short term, but it will also make a profound and lasting difference for generations to come.”

A lifelong STEM enthusiast

As a lifelong STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) enthusiast and someone who is passionate about making a difference, my educational background was unsurprisingly built on the foundation of A-levels across the sciences and maths, swiftly followed by undergraduate study of chemistry and pharmacy, and then later post-graduate study of pharmaceutical quality assurance.

Prior to WISE, my career was focused on improving the health and wellbeing of people in society through a variety of progressive senior leadership roles spanning two decades in the biotech and pharma industries, including board-level managing director tenures for the UK and EU.

My volunteering efforts have been aligned to helping others advance their learning and capability to improve outcomes. I have worked as a STEM ambassador and business mentor for many years, liaising with schools, colleges, and universities to encourage successive generations into STEM. I also serve on the governing body of a University Technical College and represent the life sciences industry as a senior leader working with local government partners on regional strategy.

After hours, I serve as a board trustee for a mental health and wellbeing charity; we have seen demand grow exponentially during the pandemic – taking care of ourselves and others has never been more important!

Driving progress on members’ gender balance journeys

No two days at WISE are ever the same. One of my key priorities on joining WISE in February was getting to know my team, our members, and our wider community, including our Young Professionals’ Board, ambassadors, and partner organisations. It has been both enjoyable and insightful to listen and learn from such a rich array of committed individuals.

Our members have given me a clear understanding about the progress they are making on their gender balance journeys as well as the issues they face, which in turn enables WISE to develop tangible strategies and tools to optimally support them.

I am also one of the WISE team who participates in public speaking events to raise awareness of the need for greater gender balance in STEM. Given my business background, I am passionate about ensuring employers understand and recognise the business case for greater gender balance; it is the key to progress.

To date, I have been involved in several events that have discussed digital skills, education, and sustainability; these events presented great opportunities to meet and hear from so many people – virtually of course!

My day-to-day includes focusing on WISE’s strategy as well as operational management. I want to ensure that we not only continue to meet and exceed the needs of our members, but that we are also recognised as the leading voice on accelerating transformational culture change for STEM roles in all organisations.

The surreal experience of starting a new role mid-pandemic

For the first time ever in my career, I went through an entire recruitment process remotely, and then had to introduce myself virtually on day one; four months later, I still have not met anyone in person – it is very surreal!

Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been critical in enabling my onboarding, but for a new starter in any business there is no real substitute for face-to-face meetings to get know people properly, and get up to speed with processes, products, and services, and how it all interconnects. Overall, it has been a fairly smooth process, but I am looking forward to having face-to-face meetings again when it is safe, and everyone feels comfortable doing so.

On the funny side, one of the biggest problems has been getting a decent headshot of me to use as my official WISE photo; initially because of lockdown we had to use a rather low-quality image that was edited from a group holiday snap!

Steadfast support for our members during the pandemic: Diversity and inclusion cannot wait

When the pandemic started in 2020, like everyone else, we had to rapidly adapt to the virtual world. All employees immediately switched to home-working; we had a slight advantage as many of our employees already worked from home on a normal day-to-day basis.

We moved all our member and public activities and events online using Microsoft Teams and Zoom to deliver our webinars, conference, and meetings. The upside has been greater involvement as people feel more able to drop into online events, fitting them around work and family commitments, or they can catch up later, on-demand. There also seems to be a greater willingness to interact online and ask questions by people who perhaps would be reluctant to speak up at in-person events; that has been very positive.

WISE made a commitment at the start of the pandemic and remained steadfast in continuing to provide support to our members, individuals, and organisations, to ensure they were able to maintain focus on their diversity and inclusion plans, despite the challenging backdrop. As we know, in times of crisis, diversity and inclusion are often perceived as a luxury that can be paused. The reality is that, as we have witnessed, equality regresses.

In addition, we created a COVID-19 hub which provides career support, mentoring advice, and sharing of real-life experiences on how others were and are coping, for example, with adapting to working from home, adjusting to home-schooling, and remembering to take care of mental, as well as physical, health and wellbeing.

Building back better means building back with more diversity

COVID-19 created a difficult year for many organisations, and we do not yet know the full extent of the impact on the workforce. However, our analysis of the ONS Annual Population Survey up to September 2020 showed there were over 53,000 women (10.4%) in engineering professional roles; almost double the number of ten years ago (6%). Despite this progress, there’s still huge scope for improvement.

We would like to see all employers aim for a target of a minimum of 30% representation of women across all levels within their organisations. This means they need to embed diversity and inclusion in the DNA of their businesses. Accountability for meeting diversity and inclusion targets needs to be retained; we must not let it fall by the wayside as ‘less important’, in a crisis, it is more important than ever.

To recover from the pandemic, we need all the innovation we can muster to build back stronger and quicker. This is an opportunity to draw on the talents of everyone in our organisations, not only will this help in the short term, but it will also make a profound and lasting difference for generations to come.

Delivering high quality, impactful engagement

One of the most important things in engaging young people is to make sure that it is relatable to them, and so visible female role models are essential for girls. We all need to see who we can become; if you are a girl considering a role in engineering, you want to know that not only is it open to female applications but that there are women already doing it, being welcomed, being successful and making a difference.

Secondly, it is important to help parents and teachers understand the potential opportunities for their daughters and students. Not every family or teacher will know someone in engineering so their own awareness may be limited. Parents are vital to their child’s career choice so we must involve them in the conversations. Employers have an important role to play here.

Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day

International Women in Engineering Day is a great opportunity to reinforce all the positive messages about what a great career engineering can be, and what a difference it makes to our world. We need to celebrate women who work in this field and help others aspire to follow in their footsteps to fulfil their own dreams.

Driving transformational culture change

WISE Patron, HRH The Princess Royal speaking at an event at the UTC Reading before the pandmic
WISE Patron, HRH The Princess Royal speaking at an event at UTC Reading, before the pandemic

I am really excited by what I have seen so far; moving forward I want to focus on how we can best leverage the expertise and commitment of both our internal and external networks to build on the great work already done and champion the vision of achieving the critical mass of ‘minimum 30% by 2030’ together.

I believe by working with our members to drive transformational culture change we will be able to address the deeply ingrained barriers to gender equity and drive the UK STEM agenda to deliver the pioneering innovation, prosperity, security, and global impact that we know it can and should.