Associate director of research, Dr Jenny Rivers takes a look back over the past week celebrating women in science and research and the benefit of encouraging more into this field of work.
Women in Science – a personal reflection
This week, we have been supporting International Day of Women and Girls in Science taking place on 11 February 2018. Launched in 2015, it was the UN’s response to the observation that “despite some progress in recent years, achieving equality and parity in science remains an important challenge for policy-makers and the scientific community at large.”
We have promoted inspirational women in research in a variety of roles across Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals, increasing visibility of the fantastic achievements of some of our female colleagues. It also gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we can better support women in science and research, ensuring that we make the most of opportunities to improve outcomes for our patients. I have been inspired reading the daily articles published here, and at the seminar chaired by our Trust Chair Baroness Morgan. She is an advocate for women in science, technology, engineering and maths, having held the position of minister for women and equalities during her time in government and currently sitting on the House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee.
In my own experience, I have been disregarded by male colleagues on a number of occasions. There have been noticeable changes in attitude upon discovering I have a doctorate and on one occasion at a conference, upon enquiry about specifications, I was informed by the sales representative of a mass spectrometry platform that the instrument housing was also available in different colours!
The assumption could have been based on gender or age, but I do not feel that this has shaped my career choices or hindered my ability to achieve. On a personal level, science has always been my family; my mother taught me maths from times tables to A-level and my PhD supervisor gave me away at my wedding. The colleagues and friends I have worked with along the way, male and female, have inspired and supported me and informed my aspirations.
It is widely acknowledged that there are fewer women in senior academic positions than men, with women acquiring 59% of undergraduate degrees but occupying 21% of senior faculty positions). I don’t find that many of the reported statistics are particularly surprising, however. ‘Women ask fewer questions than men in academic seminars’ reports that women may feel more inhibited and less confident but I would pose the question, ‘Could it be that some women are less likely to raise their hand without something constructive to say?’ There is a lot of similar analysis of this, for example the 2017 RAND analysis on international mobility, commissioned by the Royal Society, which found that, although over-represented in the survey, women are less internationally mobile than men, facing greater personal barriers with 79% of respondents reported that having children made them less likely to move between countries.
I wonder if we are utilising valuable resources on research to confirm common sense conclusions about gender equality – everyone is an individual and not to generalise too much, but there are differences between men and women.
Addressing the balance
To address the imbalance, there are things we can put in place to encourage women into a career in science and to progress in clinical academic roles. This week, we have heard and read about examples of this during our celebration of women at our hospitals. The Trust vision for research is wholly supportive of this and seeks to promote research across our clinical disciplines throughout the organisation.
Along with support for research on an individual or group basis, the Research Office also works with Clinical Care Group Research Leads, supports the Researcher Development Programme, the Allied Health Professionals, Nurses and Healthcare Scientists Research Showcase and the Clinical Research Delivery Forum. These programmes do not specifically target women although we do hope to encourage them to participate. I think that we do need to be cautious to avoid positive discrimination, for example, the idea that gender quotas play a role in the allocation of research funding - ‘Grant reviewers ‘biased’ against female scientists’, which recommends a greater emphasis on reviewing the science, with less focus on the scientist.
I question whether public funds should be distributed to researchers with less scrutiny on their ability to deliver the intended outcome because as a female scientist, I would be embarrassed to discover I had been favoured for funding due to my gender rather than the quality of my proposal.
The costs and benefits
In my experience, a successful academic career demands a much greater working capacity than during working hours of 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday. It is understandable that due to differences in personal motivations, the reward does not outweigh the sacrifice for everyone who commences a scientific career path. But it is important to recognise that an alternative contribution to science and research is also valuable; there is little evidence that women leave academia and subsequently the world of science altogether. My own decision not to pursue an academic career was carefully considered based on an ambition to contribute in a different way.
Success means different things to different people and the wide-ranging support for research alongside academic roles should not be under-valued.
In my role as Associate Director of Research at the Trust, I am committed to facilitating, supporting and promoting the range of excellent research that we do, recognising and nurturing the valuable contributions from across the organisation. To do this, I believe in myself, my team and the dedicated, inspirational colleagues working with us who share this vision, regardless of their gender. When I look back on my career in the future, regardless of the choices that I make, I do not expect my achievements to be clouded by the fact that it was harder as a woman.
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