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On women

Posted by , on 16 July 2015

I first wrote this for an anonymous blog. After a nudge, I have decided to publish it here. Parts of it have been embellished to make the point in the name of journalistic integrity. Please forgive me if I cause any offence. None is intended.

 

This is the first entry of this blog, and it will be I hope the first of many. Perhaps it will be the most important. As the name suggests, I have started this blog because I find myself more and more losing my temper with my vocation. With good reason. The first subject I shall address is one very close to my heart: women.

I am a young lecturer (as determined by the only people who apparently decide such things – funders) and have recently sat through a compulsory ‘PhD supervisor training course’ at my small but aspiring Russell Group university. This gave me reason to tell you a story about a former colleague of mine. I hope someone somewhere who cares will do something about it.

Megan (I have changed the name) is a postdoctoral scientist at a leading research institute at a big Russell Group university. I truly truly hope I am utterly wrong, but I confidently, and sadly, predict that she will leave science. She does not want to, but will be forced out.

I have a soft spot for Megan. We started as postdocs at roughly the same time. I got my PhD from Oxford from an inspirational lab, she from Cambridge from (she assures me) an inspirational lab. Obviously, it cannot be as good as my one (I know everyone else finds it impossibly infantile, but I still yell at the TV during the boat race). That aside, we worked in our postdoctoral appointments on not-to-dissimilar projects that investigated aspects of how brains develop. We both used state of the art facilities to generate novel insights blah blah blah. One of the downsides of science is that you get bored of your own propaganda. Anyone who tells you any different is either very inexperienced, very arrogant, or lying (possibly at least two of the three).

As I said, my work ended up in a decent journal and along with some smaller contributions in some smaller journals, and allowed me to land a faculty position, though I think that my potential teaching willingness in no small part contributed to this. Anyway, Megan. I mention myself because I want to make explicit the direct comparison between us that has always been implicit, at least in my mind. I just about shade Megan in teaching experience. But that is it.

Megan is a brilliant scientist. She has almost single-handedly become the driving force behind the success of a large and famous lab that has catapulted the apparently brilliant Professor at its head to fame and fortune*. His university have allowed him to drastically cut his teaching responsibilities to focus on his groundbreaking research on account of the huge amount of research income he has generated. This success has been in large part because of Megan’s efforts. And she has been rewarded too. Megan published an excellent paper in 2013 (a year before my biggest paper) in a very high profile journal (higher profile than mine). On the back of this success, she applied for and won a competitive travel fellowship that enabled her to work for three months in a super-high tech American lab to quite literally move a protein around a cell using a laser. It is as cool as it sounds**. If there is any justice in the world, she will publish this groundbreaking work (apologies for sounding like a funding organisation/government department/university dean/idiot) in a great journal and massively enhance her job prospects.

But I don’t think she will get a ‘proper job’ ie. job that isn’t a temp job like her current post. She might not even get that – it is much more cost effective to hire less qualified people and pay them less. But she has very little chance of a permanent post: she is a woman. It is as simple as that.

As I said, I recently attended a ‘how to be a PhD supervisor’ course at my university (a different one now from where Megan and I used to work). As part of this, I sat through a ‘diversity awareness’ session that made my blood boil. There was, by design, no time for questions. In this session a large, upper middle class, privately educated white man, who is a professor and reluctantly ‘leading’ on diversity, showed us a graph of male vs female biase in the scientific workforce. Apparently, there is a huge drop off in female success at the junior faculty (getting your first lectureship) and senior faculty (getting to professor) levels. Although he emphasised the latter (he is a professor after all, and so what could be more important than getting to prof?), the drop off at the former stage was larger by an order of magnitude, and we have ‘‘no idea why.’’ Blood boiling? Check.

Megan in my opinion has the potential to be a genius, actually, if I am being honest. Certainly to be a lot better than me. She generates more hypotheses than me (and most other scientists I have met), does better experiments, and performs them more rigorously, and analyses them in more intelligent ways. She publishes in better journals than I do. Most importantly, she has better ideas – the only thing that really counts in my opinion. As I said, we both have gone through the scientific career together. But I have a louder voice, and a penis (they often go together). This year, I became a father and Megan became a mother. She has no chance.

 

 

*to be fair, he is quite bright.

**apologies if you are not a molecular biologist. Just trust me. That is very, very cool.

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Categories: Careers, Discussion, Lab Life

4 thoughts on “On women”

  1. It is disheartening that so many women leave science or are “forced out” as you said in the article. However, I feel that the opinion presented in this blog is one that only further encourages women to leave academia. Why do so many women leave? Why are we being forced out? There may be more than one answer. Is it partly because we are told that we can’t succeed in academia? The last line of the article “she has no chance” “made my blood boil”. Sure, times can be tough for women. Sure, there can be biases and sexism and hurdles. But we can still succeed in academia. The perspective that is so often missing in articles like this is one of encouragement to overcome the obstacles, and the acknowledgement that there are many people and institutions out there that do want women in science and that want us to do well. The scientific community needs to condemn the bad behavior that deters women from remaining in science, and we as women need to allow ourselves to flourish in the places and around the people who are supportive of us. Because we can succeed, and we will.

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  2. Hi Kristy,

    Thanks for your comment. I hope I didn’t cause offence. This was a (clumsy) attempt to stimulate debate. I totally agree with your point that women can succeed. But not in anything like the numbers that they should. The problem in my opinion is that it is not bad behaviour that deters women, it is the scientific system. In my experience, institutions (not people) say they want women to succeed but then don’t hire any, even if they are as good as Megan. Please let me know what you think – I really appreciate the comment.

    Tom

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  3. A couple of years ago, I started a little project. Every week, I went through every research article in Nature and Science, and counted the number female authors and male authors (that I could identify as such just by name), then I counted the number of photographs of male and female scientists. Pictures in advertising or pictures of administrators were not counted. The proportions were about the same in Nature, but Science consistently printed noticeably more pictures of men than of women compared with my measure of the relevant population. I expect this is an effect of unconscious bias (although how anyone can still need their consciousness of this issue raised is beyond me), and, unfortunately, a powerful way to make sure the bias remains. I believe we need to give students role models who look like them, so that they can literally picture themselves in a particular career. And I like to believe that the scientific community, like academia, strives to be ahead of the curve when choosing whether to be the way things are or to be the way things should be. That’s probably naive, but there it is. It is hard for me to describe how disappointed I was that one of the most important journals in the US is actively perpetuating the message that women might as well not try.

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  4. This is so incredibly real, yet when only women speak out about them directly it risks coming across as defensive. Yet the skew in diversity at such basic levels affects everybody, obviously some of us so much more. Thank you for this story.

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