Sisters Doing It for Themselves

Get yourself a mentor or two and network like crazy, but also be prepared to stand confidently on your own two feet. Those were the two main messages from the successful female scientists who took part in the Women in Science panel discussion held at the Royal Institution on 26 October. Each panellist was asked, "What has been the biggest challenge of your scientific career and how have you faced it?" The challenges may have been diverse, but the responses showed that it's good to talk, which ought to give women a head start if you believe the stereotypes!

Nancy Lane, a cell biologist from the University of Cambridge, said her biggest challenge was finding the money to support her research. When you're younger, she says, it's something you take for granted.

Through a DPhil and a couple of postdocs, "I sort of glided along thinking funding was just part of life." By the time she reached Cambridge she was married and had two children, so "I kept my head down," determined to keep publishing at the same time as juggling her domestic duties. Then the director of the research unit died. Since he had been responsible for getting all the funding for the unit, "Suddenly I had to pull my head up," Lane recalls, and work out how to keep body and soul together. Faced with having to find her own money for the first time, she didn't take the obvious route of applying to every available grant giving body. Instead she found a different solution--she developed a portfolio career, in which research is just one element.

Government and Research Councils have committees that need scientists to sit on them. These pay a salary, albeit trivial, and are keen to include women among their number. A more lucrative source is the City. Nonexecutive directorships "pay what for us as scientists is a quite reasonable salary," says Lane. She reckons that shareholders like to see a woman or two on the Board, but prove your scientific credentials and you'll be far more than token. Together with a little paying journalism this gives Lane four or five sources of income at a time. "So if one dries up you always have another source to turn to," she suggests. Doing these various part-time jobs on the side allows her to carry on with research without having to worry about where the next grant is coming from. But how does one get all these committee jobs? "You have to make a huge effort to network," she says.

Joan Mason

As half of a dual-science-career couple, chemist Joan Mason's challenge was to build a career despite being a trailing spouse. She met her husband when they were both postdocs in London and took 8 years out to start her three-child family while he was a lecturer at the University of Exeter. But when her husband's job took him to the University of East Anglia, an excellent piece of mentoring by one of her husband's colleagues put her scientific career back on track. He offered her space in his lab and encouraged her to apply for a grant, which she got. When her husband moved again, to London, she got a job with the brand new Open University--her first job with tenure, at the age of 47. However, she soon noticed that her younger male colleagues were being paid more and promoted faster. "I felt like a case of arrested development," she says. But, demonstrating the remarkable self-reliance that seems to be the hallmark of these successful women's careers, Mason put herself forward for promotion. This resulted in a summons to meet with the vice chancellor, and a second piece of excellent mentoring. His advice was that Mason apply to her alma mater, Cambridge, for a ScD on the basis of her research record. "If you get that they'll have to make you a Reader," she was told. She did and was.

Monique Wells

The importance of having a sympathetic ear to turn to was demonstrated by its absence in the challenge faced by Monique Wells. Now working for L'Oreal in Paris, veterinary pathologist Wells faced her dilemma as a postgraduate student in the States. Her field, she explains, is one which "produces two types of people," researchers or diagnosticians, who use their scientific skills to provide a service, maybe analysing blood samples for signs of disease. Despite making it clear when she joined the graduate school at Ohio State that her choice was to pursue a diagnostic career, she soon found that she was being pressurised to follow the other route by her strongly research-orientated department. "The atmosphere was not one of nurturing," she explains, and she did not feel close to the few women faculty members. This was compounded by the fact that she was the youngest person in the graduate school programme, and the only African American. However, despite being awarded a prestigious research scholarship, which made it even more difficult to resist the pressure to undertake PhD research, she stuck to her guns, eventually leaving the university with a Master's degree and embarking on a career in diagnostics. Her advice? "You need to go with your gut," she urges, "go with your inner feeling."

Susan Greenfield

So women can make it without mentors, but life would be a lot more comfortable if they didn't have to. Nonetheless, according to University of Oxford neuroscientist and Director of the Royal Institution Susan Greenfield, sometimes the very comfort of a mentoring relationship can hold you back. Her challenge was making the transition from working in someone else's lab to setting up on her own. As a young scientist, she says, she never knew whether she was "being patronised and ignored" simply because she was a woman or because she was a junior member of the lab. However, with maturity came greater assertiveness, and the acquisition of a couple of project students. She found herself becoming "more and more irritated at being told what to do" by the head of the lab, and their relationship began to break down. Finally a blazing row precipitated action. Greenfield wrote to the department setting out the case for her own lab space. Being given a tiny lab--which she and her students furnished with cupboards from MFI because they were the cheapest available--was "the most fulfilling and exciting time of my life," she says. Suddenly, "you stand or fall by your own mistakes," she points out, but equally, "everything you achieve you can take credit for yourself."

Clearly these are women with the courage of their convictions. But their experiences also show that men can be excellent mentors and encouragers of women. Which is just as well, because "the men are the ones in positions of power," according to Lane. But Lane and Mason are also founder members of the Association for Women in Science and Engineering (AWiSE), an organisation that aims to encourage networking among women themselves. Perhaps getting to know a few fellow female scientists could be the key to a little self-belief. According to Nicole Dewandre, head of the Women in Science section of the Research DG at the European Union, we can be our own worst enemies. Research shows that when they succeed, women often feel that it is by chance, she says, whereas men feel it is on merit. She wants women to stop saying 'I don't want to be chosen because I'm a woman.' "Women often have to outperform" the men, she urges, so you do deserve that post or promotion.

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