Women in Science: some thoughts, by Kathryn Else

Why are there more men than women in science, and particularly at the highest levels? This is not a new question, and there have been numerous women in science campaigns, but the fact that the question continues to be asked reflects its complex nature. I am a scientist, a woman, a professor and a mum. I feel I should be well placed to comment, but there is no easy answer.

So many factors have been debated before. Is it about the general female character? Do we lack confidence? Do we acquire roles less likely to attract promotion when a job is well done? Do we not blow our trumpet enough? Or is about having children, maternity leave and career breaks? Or…..? One thing is for sure: it is impossible to be prescriptive and things true for one woman may not be true for another. There is a whole spectrum of women out there and indeed life would be very boring if we were all the same!

I have read many articles on women in science over the years – some I’ve agreed with and felt “yes that’s me”, and others I haven’t. It is a topic with multiple components, some tangible, some less tangible and difficult to vocalise.  And now I have my own opportunity, as a scientist, a woman, and a Mum, to gather my own thoughts on the topic.

Nowadays there is recognition that science needs women, and indeed diversity in general, as this enables thinking differently. Differences in opinion, including disagreements with your own ideas might not always be easy to deal with, but results in creativity and good solutions.

So with this acknowledgement, why are there still few women at the top of the science career ladder?


Women, children, and the “hot seat”.

It is not simply about having children, as men are parents too! However, I clearly remember when pregnant with our 4th child, being asked “but Kathryn what about your career?” No one asked my husband the same question. Nowadays men are usually equal partners in child care responsibilities and indeed enjoy that part of their lives, but nature does place women in the “hot seat” with pregnancy and birth. We still don’t often talk about difficult pregnancies and when pregnancy goes wrong. Having experienced four miscarriages, and a hospitalised pregnancy culminating in a very poorly, premature baby, I know this can change you, your priorities and your ability to focus, for months, possibly even years.  Emotionally upsetting for men and women, the physical toll is on the woman. Pregnancies, and certainly difficult pregnancies, impact on the rate of research.  Reality is your pace of publications slows, and there is an impact on the rate of your research programmes in a fast moving scientific area. I have had referees of my grants comment on my “slowed pace” – not quality, but quantity for sure; and of course having children usually coincides with the time when women are trying to progress up the academic career ladder.

For me, having children had another more subtle effect on my career progression: I stopped wanting to go on conferences and so I lost ground in the networking circuit.  I didn’t want to be away from the kids, – certainly whilst they were very young – and when I was away, I was utterly miserable: “separation anxiety” I think it was called.


Juggling family and life in the lab

There are some key things that have helped me through the period when our children were very young: a very supportive partner who shared the “drop-offs” at school and “pick-ups” from nursery, and the house work; total confidence in our child care; and the great perk of academia – our flexibility, both informal and formal flexible working. I remember well a mum telling me she had missed the school assembly for parents, as she couldn’t get time off at work. All I had had to do was reorganise a group meeting to one hour later – my choice; I was in control. Of course, you have to accept life becomes unpredictable for years once you have young children, as you never know when illness might hit or the school shut because of snow (those “snow days” still celebrated by our 12 year old).


The less tangible factors

So perhaps a few things there that might affect mothers in science more than fathers in science, but it is not just about having children. For me, self-confidence has always been an issue. Resilience training has been useful in learning how to control how you react to an outcome, be that a grant not funded, paper rejected or a disappointing lab result. For career progression it is also important to plan a strategy and take on the right sort of roles that take your CV in the right direction. Take risks – are women more risk adverse? Push yourself out of your comfort zone and see what happens. Apply for management roles even if you are already subconsciously analysing whether you can do a good job. The most important thing is to really want the job, not to necessarily tick every single box of the job criteria. I have always been a dreadful brooder: replaying in my head over and over again when things go wrong. I was advised to write the issue down, to in effect log what was bothering me, and then leave the issue, to move on. It worked for me. I also try hard nowadays to not worry about what other people are thinking about me, very much part of developing self-confidence.


What can we do to help?

Universities can, and indeed do, do things to help. Most are very aware of gender equality issues and provide training in, for example, unconscious bias. Making sure seminar series include top female and male scientists provides a norm, and important role models. Many Universities offer mentoring schemes now. Mentors, either formal or informal, definitely help – a critical friend to run the idea of applying for promotion, or a new job, past. For me, being encouraged to apply for promotion made a difference. I didn’t want to push myself forward (perhaps I was afraid of failing, or didn’t want to look “silly” if I wasn’t up to scratch); I didn’t want to champion myself and blow my own trumpet. Thus, encouraging women to apply for promotion in the first place is an important strategy which will make a difference.


Top tips

I have found over time that being a scientist and women with children has helped me keep a sense of perspective when things in the lab don’t go quite to plan. I used to be a brooder, with low confidence; I multi-tasked and had fragmented time. I am more confident now, and I am much more able to focus on single-work tasks; and I block my time for teaching and for research. Wherever you are on the career ladder, be realistic about what you can cope with and don’t be afraid to say “no.”

Be organized; don’t feel guilty if you leave work “early”; have confidence in your childcare and most importantly focus on what matters – do what you are passionate about.




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