I was recently invited to contribute to a book celebrating 100 years since the election of women members to The Physiological Society. The Society was founded in 1876, but it took almost 40 years, to 1915, before women were allowed to join. The book begins by surveying the numbers of women members currently, compared to the situation 25 years ago (the time of publication of the previous anniversary book). It talks about the positions they hold within the Society and calls for continued efforts to maintain or improve their representation within the society, for example as chairs of its journals and its committees. The book goes on to provide profiles of selected women physiologists: those who have made outstanding contributions to physiology but are sadly no longer with us; senior women physiologists, along with junior physiologists, each of whom was chosen by one of the senior members. I was chosen by my PhD supervisor, Professor Shamshad Cockcroft and my profile appears in the book directly after hers. On the cover, I’m the woman in the middle on the far left, just where you’d put your fingers to open the book. Immediately above me is Shamshad.
It was only recently that I began to consider myself a ‘Woman in Science’. One of the lab technicians I worked with at the Bristol Heart Institute became enraged about an article about Professor Barbara Casadei in the British Heart Foundation’s patient magazine, Heart Matters, which led to long conversations about women and science. Then, the group I worked in was made up almost exclusively of women as technicians and junior postdocs, but the senior postdocs, fellows and PIs were mostly men. In the large postdoc office I currently work in there are only two men (of over 20 postdocs and technicians) yet there is only one female principal investigator (research group head, PI) on the floor, out of more than 8 PIs. The Heart Matters article was also particularly poignant for me because it appeared in the issue immediately prior to the issue of Heart Matters that I was featured in, and when the technician complained to the Heart Matters editorial staff, they allegedly referred to the fact that I, also a woman, would be appearing in the next issue.
At the time, my experiments were going really badly and I was having a hard time finding the motivation to continue on to the next. Cell cultures were becoming infected with alarming frequency, and we received little support from the lab heads with trying to get to the bottom of the matter. The men around me did not appear to be phased by this, whereas the women seemed to be constantly engaged in conversations about other careers or jobs to apply for. One way I dealt with the crisis was to begin a crusade to increase the number of pipettes available in the lab.
The apparent inequality between the numbers of women entering a scientific career and those progressing to senior positions continues to be discussed and debated at great length. Jenny Rohn, cell biologist at UCL (where I did my PhD) wrote on the Occam’s Corner blog, hosted by the Guardian website, about why more women succeed to the higher posts in medicine, yet fail to do the same in science. Rohn argues that the reason for this is that for a medical career, the most intense period of activity is in applying for medical school in the first place, prior to child-bearing age (approx 18yrs). By contrast, in science, the most stressful period is between PhD and fellowship, approx. mid-twenties to mid-thirties, which coincides with child bearing age. During this time we need to fight for jobs, grant money and first-author papers to secure safe passage to an independent career. This could be one reason why some women find it difficult to gain a fellowship, but it certainly is not the only reason. Many women I’ve known without children have been unsuccessful in securing a fellowship, just as I have known women with children to establish an independent research group.
More recently I’ve come across an article written by Professor Annette Dolphin. Annette is also featured in the Physiological Society book, and some years ago wrote a letter to Nature expressing her concern at the numbers of plenary lectures given by women at scientific meetings, as well as the numbers of women receiving prestigious awards. This prompted her to work with the Biochemical Society to devote an entire issue of the Biochemist to a discussion of the barriers facing women and the ways in which these hurdles can be overcome.
My first visits to scientific conferences came when I worked as a Cryobank Scientist at the The Bridge Centre. The conferences I attended were largely clinical, and concerned methods of assisted reproduction, of gamete cryopreservation and genetic counselling. To me, the conferences were exciting places, where researchers, patients and specialists met and exchanged ideas. Doubtlessly this environment of talks and networking was key in my decision to return to university to study biology. This excitement continued during my PhD, and I was lucky enough to attend several meetings and conferences in the UK (some of which were funded by travel grants), as well as one on the Greek island of Spetses. (In the latter, swimming in the sea was timetabled into the scientific programme!) I produced and presented several posters as my research developed, which I enjoyed immensely, not least because I was able to present my research in a visual way.
The first conference I attended as a postdoc was the British Pharmacological Society’s 4th focussed meeting on cell signalling in 2012 in Leicester. Prior to this I held a research position for only four months (maternity cover) and attended with the group I had been working with. I paid for my own registration fee to attend this meeting and presented a poster cobbled together from the dregs of my PhD research because I felt it would be worth the networking opportunity alone. This was maybe when I started to lose enthusiasm for attending meetings, however. I watched as those around me (who were known to the organisers of the meeting) were selected to give talks and win prizes while I could barely summon outside interest in my poster. I didn’t feel that this was happening because I was a woman, but instead because I was somehow missing the boat – the wrong city, the wrong job, who knows?
Earlier this year I attended the 17th European Congress of Endocrinology in Dublin. I am now on a longer research contract and so fortunately was eligible to receive a travel grant to attend. My abstract was selected for a poster, only this time for an ePoster, which meant I went to all the trouble of making and submitting the poster, only this time the poster was hidden digitally on one of several screens at the conference centre for delegates to search for if they liked the sound of my abstract printed in the delegate book. They had the option to contact me by email if they felt they wanted to. Needless to say, no-one did, and I completely missed out on the excitement of being able to speak to other researchers about my work. Furthermore, at the networking events I only managed to meet pharmaceutical reps and clinicians – to them a ‘basic’ scientist was something of an oddity. On twitter someone commented that all conferences were like that these days, a product of the constriction of science funding.
I don’t think this is just me this is happening to, and I don’t think the lack of opportunity at meetings is because I am a woman, I think it’s happening to all early career scientists. It’s a lottery who gets chosen to give talks or win awards, and seems very much to be down to who you know. The market seems flooded with early career scientists trying to sell their wares, men and women. Perhaps it’s just the women who decide enough is enough, and decide it’s time to get out first.
Desperate to receive some kind of appreciation of myself and my skills, I went and had a chat with the Centre for Public Engagement at the University of Bristol. And you know what? Everyone I came into contact with there was a women. Are these really the rejects of a failed academic career (as we are led to feel) or really people who have realised that they are worth a hell of a lot more than failed experiments, late nights in the lab and rejection letters from journals and funding bodies?