Women in Science: Standing on the Edge

12/06/2013 10:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2014

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

Although spending declined this Black Friday weekend as compared with 2012, 141 million people -- about 2 million more than last year -- shopped both online and in stores, according to a survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation.

With the holiday shopping season clearly in full swing, an online ad for GoldieBlox, a startup toy company that sells games and books designed to introduce engineering basics to girls, recently went viral. The ad caught my attention -- and that of the millions of others who have since viewed it -- for a few reasons.

The content is empowering. It takes a bold stance, contrasting GoldieBlox toys with the dolls and dresses that are widely considered to be "for girls." And this really resonated with me. I can remember being disappointed as a young girl when I was gifted with dolls, which I thought were quite boring. Worse, my older brother received chemistry sets and other action-oriented toys in boxes emblazoned with smart-looking, powerful figures. By offering girls engineering-oriented toys, GoldieBlox is on the cutting edge. And I'm eager to see others follow their lead. As I like to say, if you're not standing on the edge, you're taking up too much space.

As someone who majored in biology in college, I can recall how few women were cited in my textbooks as authoritative sources. Barbara McClintock, a distinguished cytogeneticist (someone who studies chromosomes), was one of the few, and her choice to follow an unusual path was hugely inspiring to me. Dr. McClintock encountered significant challenges as a female scientist. She was scrutinized by her colleagues to such a degree that, despite making significant breakthroughs in genetic research, she eventually stopped publishing her data. Decades later, she was proven correct in her discovery of genetic "transposable elements" and received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983, becoming the only woman ever to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category. Women like Barbara McClintock, who precipitate action and overcome barriers, are groundbreakers in their field.

While Barbara McClintock may be an extreme example, we can all be groundbreakers in our own ways. As a woman who entered science and then business, I have confronted challenges many times. The transition from the research of science to the business of science was not easy for me. Reflecting on that experience, I've realized how important it is to take a chance on a less-certain path. By entering unfamiliar territory, I've gathered unique experiences and achievements, which have greatly enhanced my professional development.

One of the most prominent inflection points in my career occurred when I was confronted by a life-changing decision. I could lead a brand, working with a product with which I was very familiar, and even be promoted, or I could take a lateral position and join a small team researching the potential of the statin drug LIPITOR, which was guaranteed to face daunting odds in the so-called "satisfied" cholesterol-lowering marketplace. I declined the promotion and took a chance on LIPITOR, which eventually became the world's bestselling medicine. This, in turn, gave me the opportunity to contribute to game-changing science in the field of cardiovascular disease. All this is to say that when we take risks, we have the potential to reap great rewards.

While we should encourage women to "stand on the edge," we should also ask ourselves: Who is responsible for helping women break down barriers? The answer is simple: We all are. As individuals, we can each take action in the workplace -- for example, by sponsoring other talented women. While mentorship is useful, advocating on behalf of a worthy candidate and recommending her for a career opportunity is even more impactful.

Businesses can also help set the stage. In Latin America, women are just beginning to join the workforce in large numbers. Over the last 10 years, labor market participation rates among women in the region increased by 15 percent. At Pfizer, we seek to support this trend by contracting with women-owned businesses through our Supplier Diversity Program. We partner with WEConnect International, a nonprofit that empowers women business owners to succeed in local and global markets. With WEConnect, Pfizer has identified more than 380 of its suppliers in Latin America as women-owned -- and we're working to increase those numbers.

As companies, individuals and consumers, it's clear that we can all take steps to empower women and help them realize -- from a very young age -- that they can work in any field they want. To this point, I support several organizations that encourage female leadership, such as the Committee of 200 (C200) and Springboard Enterprises. At C200, we have a scholarship program for outstanding women MBA students. At Springboard Enterprises, we serve as "venture catalysts" for women entrepreneurs in tech and life science.

As more women enter the fields of science and business, we must make a conscious effort to create environments where women can take risks and pursue unique opportunities. It's compelling to see that some businesses are already taking steps in this direction by creating toys and commercials that challenge the status quo. It's high time that we all do the same.