Being a woman in science: Changed times?

Image Credit: Martha mawia via Wikimedia Commons

As part of the Edinburgh Science Festival, the Royal Society of Edinburgh hosted a panel, “Being a Woman in Science: Changed Times?” The panel brought together three very different women, from three very different backgrounds. Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who grew up in Ireland in the 1950s and made a name for herself by discovering the first four pulsars. Professor Dame Anne Glover is a Scottish molecular biologist who served as first Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland and later first (and sadly, only) Chief Scientific Adviser for the European Commission. Finally, Dr Silvia Paracchini is a neuroscientist at the University of St Andrews, with a focus on human genetics, who turned to science after her dreams of being an Olympic champion were dashed by injury.

The panel was chaired by Dr Rebekah Widdowfield, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), who skilfully led the speakers through a series of topics. She started off the discussion by asking the audience to name, if they could, five female scientists. I am ashamed to say that it was a question I struggled with.

Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and Ada Lovelace were among the most named scientists. So was Katie Bouman, recently thrust into the spotlight for her work on the first picture of a black hole. But the overall lack of contemporary female scientists was jarring. A recent report by the RSE highlighted the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon: the fact that 70 per cent of women leave STEM after completing an undergraduate degree, and that the gap between male and female scientists only grows with seniority in academia. For the RSE, one of the most evident issues was the lack of representation, which they took as a call to action.

Dr Widdowfield invited each panelist to share what attracted them to science and their experience of being not only scientists, but female scientists. All three panelists were clearly passionate about their profession. Dr Glover described herself as ‘insatiably curious’ and fuelled by a sense of adventure. She attributed her love of chemistry to a humorously described occasion in which her brother, through unsupervised tinkering with a science set, caused an explosion which brought down the roof of the house.

All three women emphasized the importance of collaboration and the joy of shared work and shared discoveries

Though she recalls a few occasions in which she was cautioned against a career in science (from a presumably well-meaning teacher who told her that she wouldn’t like working in a lab environment because it was ‘smelly’), she did not feel at a disadvantage until she reached seniority.

This contrasted greatly with Dr Burnell’s experience. At the start of secondary school, she was unceremoniously sent to study Home Economics  along with the other girls in her class while the boys were sent to the science lab. Her parents’ outcry secured her a place in the science class, where she excelled. She seemed uncomfortably aware of her situation as a woman in science at university, questioned by women (“How can you bear to do physics?”) and, being the only woman in a class of 50, set apart from men who would whistle and catcall whenever she entered a lecture theatre. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Dr Paracchini, contrary to her co-panelists, explained that she only chanced upon science later in life, and had always been envious of people who knew what they wanted to do. She studied human genetics at university, but the defining moment of her studies was Erasmus project she undertook in Denmark. Throughout her education, she described feeling like a “human being before a female student,” suggesting that the experience of women in science education has improved.

All three women emphasized the importance of collaboration and the joy of shared work and shared discoveries. Dr Paracchini described the incomparable feeling of working with a close team of people who understand how much excitement can be associated with a single band on a paper. She also marvelled at the ability of science to bring people together, sometimes in conference calls of 50 or more people.

It sounds cliché, but representation is everything

However, passion alone is not enough. Dr Glover highlighted the necessity of having a support group of people who simply believe in you to carry you through difficult situations. “I will do anything to counter unfairness,” she explained, “particularly if it is focused on other people.” She credits her resilience to this ethic, and draws strength in the knowledge that, in standing up for what you believe in, you will always find allies in unlikely places.

For Dr Burnell, resilience ultimately stems from purpose. “You can’t be resilient unless you know where you’re going.” She knew what she wanted to study early on, and attributed most of her success to her stubbornness. Dr Paracchini similarly linked resilience to ambition, and attributed her own perseverance to her Olympic training. In describing her repeated applications for a Royal Society fellowship, she emphasized that she ‘is not ashamed of [her] failures’, but rather that she celebrated them as opportunities for improvement. “I am proud that I didn’t give up.”

Resilience was undoubtedly necessary to these women, considering the challenges they faced. Dr Burnell’s greatest obstacle was societal attitudes towards working women, particularly as a young, vulnerable scientist. For her, seniority meant freedom. She described being overlooked early in her career, because as a young woman wearing an engagement ring, she was expected to quit her job in favour of her marriage. In an interview about her Nobel-prize worthy discovery of pulsars, science-related questions were directed to her supervisor while the questions directed at her centred on her personal life and physical attributes.

Dr Glover added to this, denouncing the expectations still placed on women to forego a scientific career because it is considered incompatible with family life (although men appear capable of juggling the two comfortably). Being “catastrophically shy” was a blessing to her, allowing her to focus on her work and remain blissfully unaware of these expectations for most of her career.

“Being visible and outspoken about your achievements,” [Dr Glover] explained, “is not an arrogance but a necessity”

Though society’s attitudes have changed since Dr Burnell was a student, women are still overlooked. Dr Paracchini described a typical situation, during a 50 person conference call, in which her ideas were greeted with nonplussed silence, only to be applauded, not five minutes later, when voiced by a male colleague.

It sounds cliché, but representation is everything. After asking the audience to name their role models – which brought out a host of names including Michelle Obama, JK Rowling, Rosa Parks and, most poignantly, My Mum – Dr Widdowfield gracefully concluded that “a role model is wherever you find them.” Dr Paracchini, for example, admitted that many of her role models have been men, whom she described as kind, ‘decent people’.

Having people to look up to is fuel for ambition. Dr Glover mentioned two, seemingly insignificant but eye-opening events in her life. The first was a cinema trip with her brother to see Fantastic Voyage, the 1966 film in which a group of scientists, including a woman played by Raquel Welch, are shrunk down to microscopic size to repair a scientist’s brain. For Dr Glover, this was the first inkling that a woman could have a career in science.

The second was during her PhD, when she overheard  a conversation between two famous women scientists while she was in the bathroom. Before this point, she had imagined that a scientific career was incompatible with outside interests. Hearing the similarities between their conversation and conversations she’d had with friends convinced her that if “they could do it, [she] could do it.” “Being visible and outspoken about your achievements,” she explained, “is not an arrogance but a necessity.”

[…] how can we change the ingrained attitudes towards women in scientific culture? Dr Glover was emphatic: societal attitude towards parental leave has to change. Dr Burnell had a similar answer: affordable childcare

Dr Burnell clearly shared this feeling. Throughout her career, she was either the only or the most senior woman. “It’s been pretty lonely,” she concluded. Dr Burnell has made a point of easing the way for future generations of women; she donated the entirety of the prize money awarded for the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics – the non-negligible sum of £2.3m – towards creating physics scholarships for women, underrepresented minorities and refugees. Having had no role models herself, she is now an inspiration to scientists around the world.

There is no question that a diverse workforce makes for better science. So how can we ensure that more women choose, and remain, in a scientific career? Moreover, how can we change the ingrained attitudes towards women in scientific culture? Dr Glover was emphatic: societal attitude towards parental leave has to change. Dr Burnell had a similar answer: affordable childcare.

More importantly, who has the power to change the system? Dr Glover explained that, in her experience, incentive works. “There is always a carrot you can dangle,” she explained. One such carrot is the Athena SWAN prize for the most women-friendly university, which Dr Burnell had a hand in creating. Another, much more coveted carrot, is research funding. Dr Burnell explains that the Athena SWAN prize only took off because Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England and Wales, was appalled by the lack of women during a meeting with the heads of various medical schools. In response to this, she made the obtention of an Athena SWAN bronze award a requirement for receiving funding. It is also important to remember that changes can be instigated in everyday life: Dr Paracchini highlighted the importance of strong leadership in changing culture. “Look for the helpers,” she said, “and be a helper yourself.”

See the panel for yourself, as well as the booklet from the accompanying exhibition, which celebrates some of Scotland’s most exceptional female scientists.  

This post was written by Helena Cornu and edited by Karolina Zieba.

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