Where are the women like me in science?

brekkeDr Patricia Brekke is a research fellow at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London. Her research interests focus on the ecology, evolution and conservation of reintroduced species, particularly, the evolutionary and genetic consequences of reintroduction of wild bird populations. She routinely use pedigrees and molecular tools to understand the role of inbreeding, genetic diversity loss and a species’ life-history traits on their vulnerability to extinction. Here, Patricia talks about “the women like her”, and how she intends to do science – her way. 

“When I speak to female peers in my and other academic institutions, many express doubts about being able to remain in academia. Some, like me, are plagued by impostor’s syndrome – believing we have got to where we have by luck, not by merit. But many also say something that never fails to surprise me – ‘Women like me don’t make it to the top in academia’. What exactly does that mean? Women like me? Probing a little further I find ‘women like me’ are women that want a work-life balance, to have children sooner rather than later in life, who are not overly confident and finally (and what I find most interesting of all) who believe they are not aggressive enough to progress within the current academic structure.

There used to be a widely held stereotype of what we believed a successful female academic had to be – aggressive, intimidating, controlling and often unnecessarily harsh to women at lower rungs in the academic ladder. And maybe some do still exist that fit that mould. But on the whole, we are lucky that many of the women that went before us paved the way so that we do not have to become that stereotype to succeed. I have met female academics who have given me opportunities to progress and encouraged me to pursue my goals. Those are the women I should remember and emulate.

I think the demographic of ‘women in science’ and especially those at the top is rapidly changing, becoming more varied and this is because women themselves have been, and are, changing the process and the work structure. As a female scientist at the early-ish stages of her career, I am lucky to work in a department that has a pretty balanced, if not female-biased demographic. I am proud of the fact that we have a very nurturing environment for women as well as men. There is very little hierarchy and none of the massive egos that seem to plague a lot of academic establishments.

This is by no means the norm. I am not saying all is well and good. Only 29% of the world’s researchers are women, and senior positions (including my own institution) still tend to be filled by middle aged men. We still have a very long way to go. But we have to change it from within, and perhaps the best way to start is by not selling ourselves short.

There are a lot of hurdles, but if science is what you love, don’t let the lack of role models put you off. Become one. Become an ambassador for women like you, whatever that may be.”



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