Today, the 8th March 2022, is International Women’s Day. This day is used across the world to celebrate the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women. To mark the occasion, JRF Nicky Whiffin spoke to some of the incredibly inspiring women that work with the CPM, from members of the core CPM team to our fantastic external advisory board.
I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by fantastic female role models in the CPM. I asked six of these women three questions probing who inspires them, what they see as the key issues facing women in science today, and what advice they would give to their teenage selves. Whilst these women come from a range of backgrounds there are some strong parallels in their experiences and their advice.
Meet the incredible women
Left to right, top to bottom in image above
- Professor Anneke Lucassen: Our wonderful director, Professor of Genomic Medicine and head of the Clinical Ethics and Law in Society (CELS) group at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics.
- Dr Frances Rawle: Member of the external advisor board and previously Director of Policy, Ethics and Governance at the Medical Research Council (MRC).
- Dr Katherine Wood: CPM Junior Research Fellow and postdoctoral researcher at the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine (WIMM).
- Helen King: Chair of the CPM steering group and Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford.
- Professor Cecilia Lindgren: Member of the CPM steering group, Professor of Genomic Endocrinology and Metabolism, and Director of the Big Data Institute (BDI).
- Catherine Lidbetter: Our amazing program coordinator who is responsible for the operational running and day-to-day development of the CPM.
Question 1: Do you have any awesome women role models? If so, who and why?
Role models have been hugely important in my own journey in science. “You can’t be what you can’t see” is the phrase often used to describe how we are much more likely to see ourselves in positions when we can relate to the people who are already there. Our six CPM women take their inspiration from women in all walks of life.
Frances “Having grown up in the 60s and early 70s seeing women of my mother’s generation either having a career or a family but not both, my role models were my female friends (in whatever profession) and colleagues who were managing to successfully balance building their careers at the same time as having young children.“
Helen “When I was a fairly junior police officer, women senior officers tended to come from the ‘formidable and intimidating leader’ mould. A fantastic woman Chief Inspector called Anne Pyke wasn’t like that. She was friendly, compassionate and fun, as well as being highly respected and professional. It was such a relief to see that I didn’t have to change who I was in order to be successful in my career.“
Cecilia “Growing into being a scientist Leena Peltonen, Unnur Thorsteeinsdottir and Nancy Cox were women I admired and looked up to a lot and still do admire massively (except Leena who has sadly passed).“
Anneke “My mother. She studied chemistry in the 1950s and published seminal papers in her field of surface chemistry over nearly 50 years. Many had her home address as affiliation since she declined posts in the UK when the salary offered was half that of my father’s who had the same experience. My mother’s indignance at this sex discrimination was embarrassing as a teenager, but inspired me as an adult.“
Katherine “Professor Anne Goriely – Anne is an absolutely awesome supervisor who champions women in science and does everything she can to support the women in her life. Anne is extraordinarily caring, compassionate and kind, and while never celebrating her own outstanding achievements, she celebrates every success of those that she mentors. Anne’s own journey, from a degree in engineering (agronomy) to a PhD studying the development of the nervous system in Drosophila, to now a professor in human genetics, has been anything but linear; she is an outstanding researcher and mentor alike.“
Catherine “I found Jenny Douglas of the Open University inspiring when we worked on the CPM healthcare disparities conference. She wears her scholarship lightly and is so thoughtful in her interdisciplinary approach to race, ethnicity, gender and health.“
Question 2: What do you think is the greatest challenge for women in science today? How do we combat it?
Whilst in some ways we have made a lot of progress in equality between men and women in science, there are still some really key hurdles that we need to come together to tackle. Culture, juggling childcare, and unconscious bias were common themes across the answers to this question.
Anneke “That women still often have to acquire male attributes to succeed. We combat it by recognising that success in science can have many different forms. Appreciate teamwork: endorse we, not me, culture. Make science careers look attractive to early career researcher women and open to diverse personalities/attributes.“
Catherine “The greatest challenge I think (looking in) would still be the old chestnut of juggling work with caring responsibilities, whether children or aged parents, or both, and life admin, etc.“
Frances “I think the greatest challenge for women, and indeed all early/mid career scientists, is to change the culture; to challenge discriminatory practices, to reduce the emphasis on the star players and increase the recognition of all those contributing to team science, to strive for and reward more effectively robust, reproducible science, to publish and value negative results. All this takes courage to risk the potential impact on your career of not playing by the established rules.“
Cecilia “I think (subconscious) bias against women manifesting itself in various ways is the biggest problem and we can combat this by raising awareness and discussing the issues often, offering external coaching mechanisms, and mentorship support (both peer mentorship and senior mentorship).“
Helen “I still think the greatest challenge for women is juggling, particularly if they have children or other caring responsibilities. Co-ordinating the instability, demands and opportunities of a research career, with the needs of others, perhaps including a partner’s career, whilst looking after your own mental and physical health, remains challenging and needs flexibility, creativity and compromise from all involved, including employers and group leaders.“
Katherine “I think one of the major issues we have is the problem of work-life balance and the difficulties of raising a family and being an academic. Taking a career break in the form of maternity leave to raise children inevitably leads to a “gap” in a woman’s CV without publications, where to the outside observer it appears that she was less productive. Once a woman has returned to work, managing the often long hours of research time, grant writing, paper writing, teaching etc can be extremely challenging and is often incompatible with raising small children. Coupled with the extremely high costs of childcare (even university-subsidised nursery places) compared to the average salary of a postdoc in the UK, it can make it very difficult for a woman to return to full-time research. We need to do more to support women who want an academic career and a family. The result of the leaky system also means there are simply fewer female role models in STEM subjects for the next generation to look up. If we want to encourage young girls to consider scientific careers, we need to ensure they have lots of awesome female scientists to be inspired by.“
Question 3: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Finally, I asked our six women what advice they would give to themselves as they were just finishing up school or starting university. The overwhelming theme running through these is to have more confidence in yourself and your abilities. So many women struggle with self-doubt. We can and should do more to build each other up and to tackle these insecurities in young women.
Katherine “This one is simple! You CAN do it! There were so many times I doubted myself, or nearly didn’t apply for things because I thought my chances of success were very low. But unless you try, you will never know what your potential is! Better try and not succeed than don’t try at all!“
Helen “Probably to enjoy each current stage of your life a bit more, and worry about the future a little less!“
Cecilia “You are the best version of You there is and ever will be – work on being authentically You and comfortable with that. I have struggled with imposter syndrome a lot (and still do at times), and coaching has helped me in finding my own voice and being calmly and kindly assertive, which feels amazing.“
Catherine “My advice to myself would be to trust my innate abilities, the ones I take for granted. Oh, and not to be too narrow in work focus.“
Anneke “Stop with the self doubt! Enjoy the career ride, see- rather than worry- where it takes you, meanderings and detours don’t matter, they enrich the end product.“
Frances “Have more confidence in your abilities. Find some good mentors.“
Thank you very much to all of the women across the CPM. You are all inspirational. And for anyone reading this, remember to believe in yourself. You have totally got this!