Lab Culture Part 3: Working as a Woman in Science
There have been a number of hurdles during my career, some of which are common to all scientists, some of which are specific to me and some of which are because I am a woman. Much is intertwined, particularly because I have children.
If you had asked me when starting my PhD where I would be nearly two decades later, I would have probably imagined I would still be lab active, working in a university, running my own group: none of this is the case. My career has largely been shaped by external forces leading me to re-evaluate what I wanted from a career: assessing why I work, whether I wanted to continue and, most tricky of all, what other options outside academia were available. The first external force was as an early career researcher when I found it particularly difficult to access funding, which led me to look outside the academic track. The second external force was redundancy following a site closure of the pharmaceutical company I worked for. Note that neither of these changes were necessarily driven by my gender, but there is no control version of my life running in parallel where I can separate out the variables. Either way, these two events were intertwined with another major disruptive force, having two children and their subsequent impact on my career. And for me, being a mother is where I feel most keenly the difference between men and women in science lie.
There are still major societal expectations about working mothers – that I even need to write a paragraph titled Working Mums is evidence of this and something I am continually frustrated by. When you have children there is an assumption that you, as the mother, are the primary caregiver. I often get asked who’s looking after the kids, whilst John (my husband) has never been asked. This is not uncommon; all of the working mums I know have been asked the same question, none of the dads. Secondly, the disruption of parental leave (that this is usually called maternity leave is also telling) is still mainly borne by women. In spite of working during my maternity leave, its impact on me was far greater than just the time away from the lab. I particularly remember the shock of coming back to work after seven months of maternity leave to find that I was now in competition for fellowships with colleagues who had got their PhDs three years after me.
Parental leave has such a large impact because it usually occurs at the same time as critical career transitions – in academia this can occur when women are trying to move from postdoc to PI, more broadly it is when women are moving into management roles. Whilst I have conversations with female colleagues about planning careers around children, I suspect that few men structure their careers around the best time to have kids: John (who claims to be moderately enlightened) certainly didn’t.
Attitudes are slowly changing, but change needs to happen faster. It would be nice not to be the only woman in the room. I have benefited from having a gender-neutral name (Charlie), which can cause some surprises when I turn up to panel discussions. Role models are definitely part of the solution. I was lucky in the early stages of my career to work in a department with a number of strong female leads. This showed me that it was possible (though extremely difficult) to be a scientist and a parent. But with increasing demand for diversity in panels and committees, the skewed gender ratios at the top of scientific careers means much of the burden to be more representative falls on the shoulders of a few people. This, in turn, can have a negative impact on their careers – being the face of women in science doesn’t get grants funded. The increase in representation can decrease the pool of people doing the representing – we don’t need more grey-haired white men talking about science on telly, but that shouldn’t preclude all men from talking about science. We also need male role models who are parents first and scientists second (or at least equal) as we need change for both men and women to make this work. There are a number of other life hacks that we have written about elsewhere which can help sharing parenting and science.
I’ll freely admit that this was a difficult article to write and it reflects my experience, not that of all women, in all fields of science. As I said, it is difficult to distinguish between issues that are due to me being me, rather than me being a woman. It’s very frustrating that we are still talking about the hurdles that affect women in science. I very nearly didn’t write this article in protest (but this would have been a pretty empty protest seeing as I would be the only one who knew I’d made it). My hope is that I won’t have to write exactly the same sentiment in 5 years’ time.
Dr Charlie Weller: Charlie joined Wellcome in 2014 and is currently Head of the vaccines priority platform after leading the funding response to the Ebola epidemic and overseeing the Immunology portfolio. Charlie has a PhD in Immunology and investigated mast cell function in respiratory disease and parasite infections as a postdoctoral fellow at Imperial College London. She then continued her interests in respiratory disease as a laboratory head at Novartis in target identification and validation on innate immune responses in respiratory exacerbations before joining Wellcome.