Reach for the Stars


Lindsay Nicholson's office is just as you would imagine the office of the editor-in-chief of a women's magazine to be: stylish, glamorous, and with a smattering of vibrant covers and tasteful bouquets. And since she was awarded her honours degree in astronomy and physics by University College London (UCL), Lindsay (pictured left) has probably made it closer to the stars than any astrophysics boffin. She is now editor of Good Housekeeping , which is read each month by an estimated 1.5 million women in the UK and has the highest subscription rate of all the women's monthly magazines.

"I was very lucky, maths was so easy for me at school," Lindsay begins. "I do not know why I didn't do maths at university, but I had a passion for astronomy at the time." Yet Lindsay did not enjoy the course as much as she anticipated. "So I got involved with the student magazine, spent more and more time on it, and less and less on my coursework," she says. "I justified that to myself by thinking I was better at it." After graduation, she was offered jobs in the computer and defence industries, along with a place on the Mirror Group Newspapers training scheme. She saw the latter as the best fit for her, and as she climbed the career ladder, she worked for a Scottish tabloid, The Daily Record, and later for the women's magazines Best, Woman's Own, Woman, and Prima.

It is only 20 years down the line that Lindsay has made sense of what drove her away from astrophysics and has reconciled her career in the magazine industry with her interest in science. "Early this year, L'Oréal invited me to the L'Oréal/UNESCO For Women in Science programme awards in Paris," explains Lindsay. "I was transferred back in time" and, to her astonishment, she was able to place the way she felt as a student into the bigger picture.

She studied physics and astronomy as one of nine females out of 120 students, with no woman postgraduates and only one female lecturer. She clearly recalls the nervousness that men there showed towards women. "I felt quite alienated from the department and did not feel I had anything to offer," she says. On top of sexist attitudes, women scientists are also more at a disadvantage than their male counterparts are when it comes to coping with job insecurity in their child-bearing years. In Paris, Lindsay realised that what she imagined to be her personal situation in fact has roots deeper in the academic system. "And, to my horror, the situation hasn't changed in 20 years," she says, "and it is such a huge problem that L'Oréal gives millions of dollars" to raise awareness of the issue.

She too wanted to do something and saw Good Housekeeping as an ideal tool. The November 2002 issue featured a special supplement, "Race for the Future," sponsored by L'Oréal to highlight women in science and to celebrate their achievements. "I was really excited to be able to bring together my experience on something terrible happening in science, and my job," she says. Baroness Susan Greenfield, author of a just-published, government-commissioned report on women in science, also appeared in the magazine. "Susan was very supportive," comments Lindsay, "and she talked about how important it is to discuss these things in women's magazines."

Back at UCL, Lindsay's male peers may have "thought I was mad" to abandon astronomy for journalism, but her female friends were doing the same. Every woman scientist she knew at the time thought she was not good enough to succeed in science and went in different directions, says Lindsay. A recent survey by the Department of Trade and Industry found that about 50,000 women science, engineering, and technology graduates are not working in science at any one time, but "surely not all of [them] were not good." Lindsay also points out that this lack of confidence is, alas, typically female.

Still, a leap from physics to tabloid journalism might appear somewhat 'out of the frying pan, into the fire.' But surprisingly, "it was a lot less dominated by males than the physics department," says Lindsay, and she felt more comfortable there. Besides which, "I didn't think in those terms then, I just thought I was not as good in astrophysics."

And if you think that a scientific training is of no use at all in journalism, think twice. "[A scientific background] encourages you to be questioning, very precise, and very fact based," says Lindsay. "It gives you an edge over people who have written long essays at university." Furthermore, if you can understand rocket science, you can understand anything. Lindsay saw that many people were afraid of scientific concepts, but there was no story she was afraid to chase--a tremendous advantage.

Yet ironically, Lindsay was to feel discriminated against again, this time not for being a woman, but for being a scientist. "At one point, I just wouldn't say what my degree was because people interviewing me were very intimidated," she says. For 5 to 10 years in her career, she would say she had done combined studies in journalism and science so that would-be employers wouldn't feel so threatened. The issue faded away once she reached the editor level herself.

She also felt a bit defensive about not having an arts background. "I felt embarrassed by not having read many of the classics and [not having] a good understanding of the arts," she says. So she overcompensated. "I have been reading and going to the theatre more than anybody I know from an arts background," she says. She points out that it is easier for a scientist to expand her knowledge of the arts than vice-versa.

Even if she didn't grasp her reasons for leaving science at the time, Lindsay has no doubt she made the right choice. "It's an enormously creative job," she explains, "I can't believe somebody lets me compile a magazine with all the things I am interested in!" She particularly enjoys the more visual aspect of her job, attending photo shoots and choosing the pictures. To her, it is also very important that her magazine is not only entertaining but a useful source of information on topics such as health, people's rights, and consumer issues as well. "If you find the job you enjoy doing and [at the same time can] do something for someone else, that is the best job for you," she says. "I believe you will always do well and make a decent living out of that."

She also appreciates women's magazines for being a family-friendly and nurturing environment, even though competition is harsh. "Lots of people fail to get in, but then it is a small industry and everyone knows each other quite well," she explains. Lindsay thinks that anyone literate and with good science training should be able to make it as a journalist. "With journalism, the facts are the star, not the style, and it is the same in science," she says. However she would recommend doing a course accredited by the Periodical Publishers Association ( PPA) to help you get started.

So does she have any regrets about leaving science? "It's only when looking at the bigger reason why I wasn't happy at university and didn't want to go for that job that I allowed myself to feel a sense of regret," she says--not for choosing not being a scientist though, but for finding herself blanking science out of her mind and being unable to maintain her interest in astronomy. But it seems she finally has the best of both worlds. "I really like women's magazines, but love the opportunity to bring the two strands together," she continues.

Scientists who are considering a pronounced change of career should try to understand their reasons as much as they can. "Maybe you are reacting to something that is unacceptable," says Lindsay, and whether it is attitudes, sex discrimination, or something inherent in the job, "maybe you could change the system." But if you still want to make a change, then you should be very proud and positive about it. For a start, being trained to think in a scientific way is more of an asset in the workplace than you could imagine. "And then, people who are not afraid of scientific concepts have a lot to offer to educate society," she concludes. "Just by being there and comfortable with science, they are doing a lot to improve the way things are."

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