Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Role Models in Science

As a 15-year-old I could have specialised in either science or humanities. It was immersion in the words of science writing greats, combined with first-rate maths teaching, which tipped the balance. Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould*, Mr Stanbrook the head of maths: none were women, but that didn’t matter.

My ambitions were not dampened by my gender; I was inspired to do science by extraordinary scientists. I had been brought up to believe that being female was irrelevant to career choice. (Maybe my mother was a role model due to my gender neutral childhood – I grazed my knees and hated pink). On the brink of science A-levels I owned my future and had no need for role models that were particularly like me.

I went on to a science career – a PhD followed by work in the biotech industry. I don’t remember being hugely disadvantaged by being female. I do recall feeling uncomfortable by my clear minority status at bioinformatics conferences, but sticking out in a crowd has its advantages too.

And then I had kids. Suddenly my gender mattered very much. Neither my husband nor I wanted to battle with two full time jobs, day-long childcare and weekends spent catching up with household chores. So I gave up my science job. It was heartbreaking. I cried. A lot.

I was offered part-time work but didn’t feel I could do my job (and commute) in the hours my baby would be happy in childcare. He may well have thrived in nursery, but my resistance was belly-deep and frustratingly refused to submit to feminist reason. (And this is not to imply that working mothers are insensitive to their children’s needs – we must each do what feels right for us). It was the best decision for the family as a whole, and because I am now based at home we enjoy a relatively relaxed, spacious existence.

I still needed to work, so I started my own business, working locally and intensely for about 12 hours a week. I choose my working hours (term-time only) and the job does not overspill into the rest of my life. The downside is that I no longer work in science. Scientific careers do not easily lend themselves to such plasticity and school based schedules.

Despite women’s progress, the well worn roles of woman=caregiver man=breadwinner remain too easy to slip into. Although I could “choose” whether to stay in science or leave, it didn’t feel much of a choice. Science careers (along with other interesting and challenging jobs) reward long hours, and those with caring responsibilities are marginalised as a result. There is still the inbuilt assumption that scientists have someone else taking care of their children. The workplace needs serious restructuring - both men and women should to be freed to share the joys, rewards and challenges of science and the home.

In order to soften the blow I have been telling myself I am on a career break. And now, five years down the line, the kids need me less and small windows are appearing in which I can start thinking science. The online world is a wonderful opportunity for those outside the scientific establishment to participate whilst the kids are asleep upstairs. I’m enjoying riding the wave of excitement in personal genomics, once again part of an intellectual bubble, this time from my sofa.

In two years time both my children will be at school and I may even work out a way to earn money from science. By then I will be approaching 40 and I’m aware there will be afterschool care and holidays to contend with for many more years.

So at this stage in my life I need role models. I need women to show me that being older does not mean you can no longer achieve. I don’t need free-range young women unencumbered by children. Nor am I inspired by peers who have managed to combine family and career in a way I have not, although hats off to them.

I need trail-blazing birds with a few wrinkles who are singing louder than ever. I want those who have the maturity, wisdom and breadth that come from living. I need to feel that the scientist inside me has not died forever and there is plenty of time to fulfil her teenage dreams.

Here are my role models. Ladies, I salute you all.

Do you use social media to stay up to date whilst on a career break from science? I am contributing a chapter to the book “Surviving as a women in science” and would love to hear your experiences - elaine dot westwick at googlemail dot com.

*Breaking news: it looks like as well as writing beautifully he may have made things up

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  1. Hi,

    I read your post and related to every word. I am not a scientist though I do work in a science related company- BioData ( I am 43, I have 3 young kids. When my first kid was born, I too stopped my career and took a long break because, like you, I felt this is better for us as a family. I gave birth to another two kids (the youngest is not almost 2) and 6 months ago, after almost 6 years of being a stay-home-mom, I returned to work. It was not easy for me to make that change and I had many fears, but I also felt that I need to do something for me. So you just make it work- and it's not easy, I admit. But- I am having the time of my life- I enjoy going to work. I didn't feel age was a problem when I looked for work and I am able to manage between both overall not so bad.
    What I really want to tell you is that you shouldn't worry- the right thing will come for you. You will feel it when you see it. Don't be afraid to go out there and look again.
    Good luck!

  2. Thanks for the puff. Good luck with your own trail blazing. You may be interested in the following books, which rather reflect your position:
    Opting Out by Pamela Stone, which I wrote about a bit in


    It's not the glass ceiling it's the sticky floor Karen Engberg

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Michal - Great to hear you are enjoying being back in science. It's depressing how much of your 30s can disappear - I had my 1st at 31, my 2nd at 34 (so not late) but there will be not much of the decade left by the time they are both at school

    Athene - Wonderful to have you here. Yes, I've seen your review of Opting Out and it is in my pile to be read, I will check out Sticky Floor.

  4. Elaine, I'm so happy to have found your post! You're me, three years from now. I quit my post-doc 2.5 years ago when my first daughter was born but I miss science intensely. I hate writing "unemployed" in the box on forms. I'm rather competitive so I see it as a personal failure. But I also don't want to leave my daughters to be raised by others, especially since my partner=breadwinner rarely gets home before 9pm. Not so keen on moulding the kids for the psychiatrist's couch. One of my 1-year-old's first words is "quack"- should I take that as a sign?

    Would love to chat about social media etc for your book. You can find out more about me at:

    or twittering occasionally @megan_cully

  5. Hi Megan

    Glad you enjoyed the post. I am equally competitive but thankfully don't feel the need to be a competitive mother - hence the need for an alternative outlet.

    I had to pull out of the book chapter in the end....due to lack of time. I was having to work evenings/weekends on it which wasn't sustainable. Its very frustrating but I have to bear in mind that my youngest is still only 2 and there will me more time later. Patience....

  6. Very interested in your article. My kids are now young teens and I'm in my late forties! I felt, like you, that I didn't want them to be in constant childcare and with a husband doing long hours in the same environment, it was always going to be tricky. I 'hung on' in academic science throughout their early years, working one or two days a week, but my eldest didn't enjoy nursery and it was a constant worry. Over the past decade or so, I've gradually increased to working about 2/3 full time but, to be honest, it has been only a partial success. I enjoy the intellectual challenge immensely, but there are constant conflicts between the two roles, and my career limps along rather than flourishes. I still can't really do any work at home, and often have to dive out of meetings early, skip conferences and so on. I don't have a great publication record.

    Sometimes I wonder whether I shouldn't have got out when they were babies, and sorted out something more sustainable since. Perhaps if I was more brilliant it might have worked better.
    Who knows? On the whole, it has been enjoyable, but I'm still not sure how the future is going to pan out.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Hi Helen

    Thanks for stopping by and telling your story.

    You may be being a little hard on yourself by using the world's view of "success" rather than your own. For me, success is being around for my family when its important (which isn't all the time) and having enough work to be mentally stimulated and fulfilled. Success for me isn't reaching the top of a career path that's been mapped out by others, but finding my own way to fulfill my potential.

    Changing to a "sustainable" career has been good for me, but I still need to do brain things on top of it and it will be harder for me to get back.

    And I don't think brilliance comes into it. Traditional success in science requires working long hours as well as being good enough. Another reason for creating your own definition of success.

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