INTERVIEW How would you describe your experience of being a woman in science and has it changed as you have progressed through your career? I never thought of myself as a woman in science but just as a scientist. I have been lucky with the colleagues I’ve worked with on a day to day basis and so gender was never an issue, especially when I was at the earlier stages in my career. I did notice that the more senior I became, the more sexism I experienced, maybe because I was more unusual or that people felt a woman was in some way threatening their position. You do have to be careful attributing that to sexism though—it could just be that life becomes much more competitive. I can’t help noticing that there are not very many other women around and that is unsettling. Men could just stop for a minute and imagine what that might be like if they were always the odd one out, it’s not very enjoyable. We need diversity of approach in the workplace for us all to benefit and we need to start being a bit more imaginative about how we can achieve that.
science is the most creative thing you can do with your life._.
The under-representation of women in science, particularly at senior levels is well documented. What are its causes? It is a very normal and natural thing that couples have families but, even although this is the 21st century, women are still bearing the brunt of childcare and their careers are often deemed secondary. So, although we see many women as undergraduates and PhD students and post-doctoral researchers, their presence dwindles after that as they start to have families. It doesn’t have to happen. For example, in Glasgow there is a very successful science-based company, Clintech International, which has a majority of female scientists (engaged on the basis of excellence) and every one of them who has taken maternity leave has returned to the company afterwards. This is because the company values its staff and supports them during their leave and on return to work. It can be done where there is a will and some innovative practice. It also saves the company a lot of money as a recent Price-Waterhouse-Coopers study indicated that it takes the annual salary of an employee to replace them if they leave. It needs to be possible and acceptable (the norm) for men to take paternity leave.
Do you have a vision for equality in the future of science? I want the best to be supported, female or male and this will deliver the best science. I also see the benefit of diversity in teams (which is how science is done these days). A Royal Society survey revealed that 90% of 18-24 year olds could not name a wellknown female scientist. Who are your favourites and did you have a role model during your early career? The ones that did name a female scientist probably mentioned Marie Curie who was very formidable, as was Rosalind Franklin. Both of them had a terrible time of it just because they were women. Things have improved a bit since then. But for me, the women who were successful scientists when I was a student were of great interest as they were of the “here and now” instead of historical. Noreen Murray worked in Edinburgh when I was an undergraduate and so I could see what was possible. She was a pioneer of molecular biology in the 60s and 70s. Jean Thomas who described much of what we know about the importance of histones was a great inspiration to me when I was at Cambridge and then I met a lot of successful women in science such as Sue Kingsman from Oxford and Felicity Huntingford from Glasgow, who I found particularly inspirational when I worked with her when she was the chair of a peer review committee for the Natural Environment Research Council. Closer to home, it was great to have colleagues like Neva Haites and Nuala Booth at Aberdeen. We need more female scientists presenting in the media too. I like Alice Roberts. What advice do you have for young women thinking about embarking on a career in science? First, just do it. Second, never wait to be asked. Third, find a mentor (woman or man; a good one can be invaluable. Jim Prosser, School of Biological Sciences, was a great mentor to me when I first arrived at Aberdeen and has continued to offer me great advice throughout my career. The same goes for Allan Hamilton, past head of Department of Genetics and Microbiology at Aberdeen). Fourth, enjoy it, there’s no more creative thing you can do with your life. ■
ANNE’S SCIENTIFIC CV ■ BSc Hons. Biochemistry, University of Edinburgh ■ PhD, University of Cambridge ■ Lectureship, University of Aberdeen
1998–2001 Reader, molecular and cell biology, University of Aberdeen 1999–2003 Technical director, Remedios, Aberdeen, Scotland 2001–present Personal Chair, molecular and cell biology, University of Aberdeen Chris Sutherland is a PhD student in Ecology
Au S P R I N G 2 0 1 2
Published on Mar 8, 2012
Issue 3 of Au Science Magazine, brought to you by students from the University of Aberdeen, asks the question Who are Scientists? And celebr...