Let me introduce myself: my name is Shannon. I am a 22 year old White-Asian woman from England studying a PhD at university. In reality, this means I’m busting my butt off doing experiments from nine ‘til god-knows-when, nearly every day of the week, for three and a half years of my life. Not because it’s my job to, or that I’m doing it for the money, but because I abso-freaking-lutely love it.
I know many people can’t say this, but I love medical research so much that I’m pretty sure I’ll be clutching a bacterial culture in my hand the day that I die. And I love this work for a number of reasons: firstly, I can do it when and how I want; secondly, it’s fine if I fail so long as I work out why and learn from it; and thirdly, I get to show off my results and gain recognition for them regularly at talks and conferences round the world. In short, I could never see myself doing anything else. And yet. And yet.
Women, it is universally acknowledged, hardly ever progress as far in their scientific careers as men. This is a truth that I end up having to confront again and again in my line of work, and something that is regularly served up to me as so-called ‘proof’ that my gender are destined to fall at the first few hurdles.
When you look at undergraduate, postgraduate and post-doctorate levels, the gender spilt in science has actually become pretty even; even research staff in the places I’ve experienced have been about fifty-fifty. However, the academic staff – the ones that teach and lead their own research groups – tend to be men: this is important. The numbers of woman with professorships are, similarly, distinctly lacking. This is a problem across Britain, with the majority of universities scoring abysmally low on their hirings of women as academics and professors. Where and why, exactly, does it all go to shit?
At some point during a women’s scientific profession, instead of climbing to the top of the career ladder, the rung under her foot collapses and she can’t go any further; or, to put it another (more accurate) way, the ladder that supports her fails. There is an inherent fault in the system that biases towards men. So let me list the three most common reactions that I’ve come across to this problem (and yes, it is a problem):
‘Men take more senior roles because they are more intelligent/dedicated to the job than women.’
‘Women take career breaks to have children.’
‘If academia has proven to be the wrong place for women and their lifestyles, they should go elsewhere.’
To all of these, I say: let’s apply some logic.
Firstly, if men were inherently more intelligent than women (and yes, it is surprisingly still necessary to rebut this), we wouldn’t be at equal levels at PhD or postdoc level. The men would then easily win the opening positions over the women because clearly they are genetically more intelligent and hardworking – but they don’t.
Secondly, the baby situation. This seems to me a complete denial of basic maternity rights which women were supposed to have won a long time ago – and yet the prejudice is alive and well in academia. In this often hidden world, where people often aren’t held to account in the same way that they can be in commercial enterprises, I heard a supervisor mention to a postdoctorate researcher the other day that she “might not be able to work here any more” if she left to have children. The message is clear: want to use your uterus for human life? Say goodbye to your job prospects.
The real reason why women don’t progress as far as they should do in science is because of society, and the way in which its biases function in an academic environment. Don’t believe me? Let me give you a handy example in the form of my boyfriend and I (yes, it’s an obviously personal one, but I’m picking it out of the hundreds of similar situations I’ve witnessed and read about.)
Boyfriend and I went to the same university, we did basically the same subject and both got the top marks in our degree schemes in our year; I, however, won an additional prize for the unusually high quality of my work. We both applied for Masters degrees and PhDs half-way through our final year; he went to a total of four interviews in six months, and managed to secure a place before we graduated. By the time I graduated, I had only been invited to two interviews and it was only after a further eight months and another two interviews that I managed to get a place on my PhD course. The kick in the teeth for me was he used my covering letter and CV as a template because they were much better than his. Academia is rife with these tales.
The media is guilty of only showing a uniform male face as the face of science: on TV, for instance, David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have their own shows and corresponding fan bases. Pair this with the fact that scientific history has conveniently forgotten women – Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison and Watson and Crick, for instance, are household names while Rosalind Franklin (the actual discoverer of the structure of DNA), Clara Immerwahr, Gertrude B Elion and even Marie Curie are rarely spoken of in the primary school classroom – and you have a recipe for feminist disaster. You can’t be what you can’t see, and no amount of patronising European Commission adverts featuring girls who experiment with make-up and microscopes is going to make up for that.
If we want to encourage a new generation of women scientists – which I certainly do – then we need to discuss the female contribution to science publicly, as well as the very real historical efforts to silence them. We need to seriously empower the girls and women struggling their way through academia in a sexist environment. And we need to stop telling women like me, who live and breathe science, that top-level research ‘might not be the place for them’. After all, we’re making futuristic discoveries – so why should the attitudes towards us be so firmly fixated in the past?
- Shannon Dejesus