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Women in Science: Academia or Industry?

The statistics are all too familiar. At the undergraduate level, women are highly visible. But as they progress through the university ranks, women disappear, resulting in the "scissors" diagram (see figure). Where do all the women who leave academic research go? Well a large number go into industry, but a recent conference in Brussels was told that statistics for women working in commercial science are even harder to gather than those for women in higher education. Social scientist Hilary Rose warned, "if we do not study industrial research we are in deep trouble. It is where women are working."

Graph modified from the report "Science Policies in the European Union"

Jenny Holmes of AstraZeneca told the conference that Zeneca had developed a database to follow the progression of women through the company, but sadly this project had undergone disruption due to the merger with Astra. So what is life like for female scientists in industry? Is it the Promised Land, or are things just as tough as they are in state-funded research? Next Wave talked to women with experience in both worlds to find out.

"Personally, I think the issues are those of women in work," says Anna Randi, who works at GlaxoWellcome. "In the city, they may be worse off." She says the scissors diagram applies equally in the commercial environment as the academic, with women and men starting out in the same numbers, but the women becoming less evident as you look at more senior posts. Colleague Julia Turner agrees. "Women are very popular as bench scientists in industry," she says, but there are very few group leaders.

So if women face the same problems climbing the promotional ladder in industry, why make the switch? "I saw a lot of people on soft money," says Donna Johnstone. "I didn't see many female lecturers with permanent positions," she adds, "and those I saw didn't fill me with longing," mostly being unmarried or having no children. She joined ICI, now AstraZeneca, in 1986. She didn't notice it at the time, but all her interviewers were male. And, having got the job, when people came to fix equipment in her lab, they would invariably approach her male colleague to find out what needed doing. Things have moved on, however. Following her recruitment, "a large wave of women" entered the company. She thinks that women have become much better at presenting themselves during the interview and are much more inclined to take the advice of their universities in this respect than are men, many of whom are arrogant enough to feel they can just walk into jobs.

"I didn't mind working on soft money," says Rose Maciewicz, who also works for AstraZeneca, "but I never felt they valued what I did," she says of her time in a research council institute. "The person who interviewed me [at ICI] gave me a lot of confidence that I would be valued," and she is extremely happy that this is indeed the case.

For many scientists, whether male or female, the sheer uncertainty of academic life is off-putting. "The work/life balance is more evident in industry, whereas academia is more akin to setting up one's own business and much more time is invested in the first 5 years," according to Eileen Seward, an organic chemist at Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD). Turner agrees. Her move into industry was prompted when a fixed-term lectureship at the University of Cambridge came to an end. She was very concerned about having to find grants to support herself as well as the members of her group. Much as she enjoyed lecturing, having recently had her first child, she found the peripheral admin duties extremely frustrating as they ate into both research and personal time. "It's been very nice to perform research in hours compatible with family life," she says, and she has not been expected to work evenings and weekends. And she found that moving into industry did not mean turning her back on the teaching she loved. "As well as the opportunity to be a part of active research, working in industry allows one to be involved in training and teaching, internally and as collaborations with academic partners."

And there are more positive reasons for moving to industry than simply leaving behind the short-term nature of academia. These women clearly value the opportunities for working with scientists in other disciplines, which is a key feature of industrial research. "In academia you probably wouldn't go to lunch with someone in a different department," says Maciewicz, a biochemist, but "because the company's success depends on a group effort, you get to interact with people who have a really different skill base." And Seward cites "the interdisciplinary nature of the job" as one of the reasons why she and her colleagues chose industry.

As in any field of employment, having children adds a different dimension to the working woman's life. Seward is doubly fortunate. MSD has an on-site nursery at its research park in Harlow, Essex. "I probably would have reconsidered coming back to work if nursery facilities were not available," she says. And her husband is also a scientist at MSD, which means they can share childcare. "You can do your own career to the full because your partner can participate," she explains. Johnstone is a mother of three. Having moved away from the bench to become a global product director, "I'm in a position now where, should I need to work at home, I can," she explains, and claims that industry has become much like the academic environment in terms of its flexibility for working mothers. "Ten years ago I'd have said it's hard in industry," she says, "now it's much more flexible."

"I have always struggled with being a scientist and a mother," says Turner. She had her second child 14 months ago. Changes in the way research is organised while she was away on maternity leave mean that she no longer enjoys her job as much as before and, because of the high cost of hiring a nanny, "it has to be worth my while to pay someone else to bring my children up," she says. She will leave GlaxoWellcome at the end of June to become a full-time mother for a while, a decision she describes as "very sad." GlaxoWellcome doesn't have an on-site crèche, which Turner believes adds to the difficulties of being a working mother. Before her daughter was born, what should have been a 20-minute commute became an hour each way because of detours to take her son to nursery. And she had the constant worry of not being able to get to him quickly if something happened.

Despite this, and in common with the other women, Turner certainly does not regret moving to industry. Maciewicz loves her life and sees industry as "a big candy shop," where "the candy is actually affordable!" Even Randi--who admits that, at the time, "it was a difficult choice," and whose academic friends believed she had sold her soul to the commercial devil--sees through her continued contact with academia that things have changed in the universities. She is about to take up an honorary position at Imperial College and is really looking forward to having the best of both worlds. "Maybe these two worlds should no longer be seen as opposites," she suggests. "There are lots of points of communication. ... This should be the future."

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