Thursday, 1 August 2013

Why I need a little positivity

Today I was pointed to this interesting project photographing Nobel Laureates. I started flicking through the pages, thinking it was kind of a fun take on the idea and had a nice human element, discussing how lucky they felt to have been awarded the prize and so on.

Now I apologize for screenshotting it, you can go and check out the whole project, but I wanted to share this 'overview' photo because it highlights something important.

Did you notice the important thing?

...Where are the women?

There are in fact two of them (can you find them??) but in general this is pretty representative of my experience as a woman in science.

I reckon that until there are at least 10 women in that picture, you would assume it was all men at first glance.

Yesterday I met with a group of women within STFC to discuss issues of why women leave science (in particular academic science) and I wanted to share my thoughts with you on this blog.

Apologies for the rant in advance.

It is continually thrust in my face that I am unlikely to succeed in my chosen career. While I identify in many ways with the nobel laureates in the pictures (their thirst for knowledge, creative side and joy of discovery) this kind of image does nothing to bolster my confidence or persuade me that it is, in fact, possible to succeed in my career.

Meeting all the women at work yesterday did infinitely more to convince me in a positive way that what I am attempting is not impossible. I firmly believe it is VERY possible if only I would stop letting the debilitating doubts in the back of my mind [these doubts are not self-generated but I believe are caused by being constantly reminded of my supposed "chances" in this career].

So it's hardly bleeding surprising that there have been instances when I have felt like quitting science. I wondered if perhaps these things have convinced other women to leave science, so maybe I should spell out a list of things which have happened to me just in the last year which have made me want to quit:

  • When an eminent professor in another country spelled it out to me in no uncertain terms that I would always have to be better than the men I work with to get equal credit or even be taken seriously.
  • When I was harassed at a recent conference.
  • When I was sent a job advert that I could do with my current skill set at twice my current salary that was permanent, non-competitive, local and not stereotypically 'male'. (ie. I was provided an option of an 'easy way out'. Just in case I wanted to quit, you know...)
  • Whenever I consider the idea of having a family in the next 5 years and think of all the times I've been told how bleedin' hard that will be while pursuing an academic career & the post-doc circuit.
  • When I was listed as "homemaker" on our mortgage application because my independent research fellowship apparently doesn't count as having a job or an income. Where is the respect for my long-fought-for career, seriously?
  • Every time I see a woman or man who I respect and admire leaving science because they have grown tired of all the things I've listed above and more.
Most of all, I'm tired of having this thrust in my face all the time. I'm tired of thinking about it. There ARE women who have succeeded in science and those who continue to do so ALL THE TIME. I met a whole load of them yesterday!
What I really need (and I said this in the meeting yesterday) is some positive inspiration rather than all the downbeat statistics and well-intentioned 'warnings' about how hard our careers are going to be.

I know hard. I work hard. I'm OK with doing hard, scary, challenging things. I'm not doing science because it's easy. I don't run marathons because they are easy either. That said, one thing marathon running has taught me is the importance of a positive mentality.

So when it comes to a career in science I simply have to block out all the negative messages I'm being sent and repeat my mantra: I CAN do this. I WILL succeed.

Now just let me get on and do it!


  1. I think marathon running and academic careers have some interesting parallels actually... just keep running, just keep running...

    Nice post.

    1. Yes! I've been thinking the same thing for a while. Thanks :-)

  2. I stumbled upon your blog while on facebook and I'm glad I read this very good post today. I really admire your strength and hope you succeed!

  3. As one of the people in the picture above (5 down - 4 across), I can say it bothers me that there are not more women in those pictures - but I feel confident there will be more in the future - The average Nobel Prize winner is old - And things are better now than they were - although far from perfect. I just returned from the Cosmic ripples conference at Durham and I realised most of the way through the conference that something was different - a sizeable fraction (not half, but a 1/3rd or so) of the speakers were women - and they were giving more than their share of the best talks. 15 years ago, there would have only been a couple. So while progress is slow, there is progress.

    I am a firm believer that the structure of Academia needs to change - it sucks for everyone - Women and Men. My approach has always been to enjoy my job when I am doing it, but realise that my research career takes 2nd place to my life - and that there are many good jobs out there I could do if Astronomy let me down. It is only because 3 people turned down a job in 1997 that I remained in Astronomy long enough to help discover the Accelerating Universe. However, If that twist of fate had not taken place, I would not have won a Nobel Prize, but I still would have been happy - I would not have sacrificed my happiness for my career.

    Most of the people I have seen leave research because they couldn't deal with the career path seem happy a few years after the fact - They have managed to use their skills to do an interesting and rewarding job. The big loser is the Academic/Research enterprise itself - The Academic/Research career path needs to change because it is throwing away many the most talented people (and a high percentage of these are women) because of an unnecessarily tortuous career path. For people going through all of this - my advice is remain positive - and know there is life outside of academia. But at the same time - my advice for all us that have permanent jobs - We need to do everything we can to make Research and Academia a more sensible career. The world is rapidly changing and our discipline can ill afford to be chained to the past.

    As for your comments on Sexism - it should not be tolerated at any level. Men and women alike need to tell offenders when they go wrong -even a little bit. It can be done nicely (at least in the first instance, and depending on what was done) - but it needs to be done. Few people want to make mistakes with regards to sexism - but most of us probably do - we live in a sexist society. But that doesn't make it OK - most people I think want to know when they do something inappropriate. I know I sure do.

    So remain positive about your research career - and feel the power that comes from knowing you are actually in charge - and you have options if your current job situation fails you. When you realise that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you will have to get a relatively normal good job - I, at least, found life a lot easier dealing with a postdoc that was ending in 9 months, and no other job in sight.


    1. Wow, thanks so much Brian for your thorough and encouraging response. There's little that could encourage me more than having such an inspiring message from someone like yourself! (And fellow Aussie, to boot).

      I'm also really pleased to hear your views on changing the academic/research enterprise to do away with the ridiculously tortuous career path, which even in my limited experience I can see is "throwing away" many of the most talented people, as you pointed out. (Talented people are often intelligent and also pragmatic - they want some job security!)

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  5. Although I am still new to academic sciences, I can vouch for that reaction too. One thing that you have not mentioned is, that if you succeeded, it was not due to your hard work or intelligence, but because you’re a women or your good looking. I really just want to be noticed for my passion and hard work. As a woman, why can’t I be beautiful and intelligent?

    One thing that keeps me going is the story of Marie Curie. It is just amazing how that woman had all the odds against her. I mean back then, times were harder than now. I can only imagine how many times she thought about quitting, but still she pushed forward.

    The other thing is to read blogs like these. Just to know that I am not alone. That there is thousands of Marie Curie’s out there fighting the battle.

    Thank you for your blog Suzie

  6. As I see it, a big problem is that the academic career path in its current form doesn't select on the skills that we want our best scientists to have. It's not the brightest people with the best ideas and most enthusiasm that necessarily succeed (though happily some do!); more those that can physically and mentally cope with long hours, uncertainty about the future, travelling, and constant low-level pressure to excel on many fronts, all the time. While we can work on some of those things, learn and train ourselves, much of it is just luck and circumstance. And you have to do amazing science on top of that.

    If you have any kind of "special circumstance", like a chronic physical or mental illness, a sick relative you want to look after.... you're going to find it tough to succeed, however brilliant you are.

  7. Science is built on empirical data. So when enough women succeed in Science, winning Nobel Prizes, taking high Chairs in Academia, eventually it will lose its sexism. It's unfortunate that Science seems to lag behind the trappings of an Academic career, it really seems to boil down to limited resources, access to tools like AO Telescopes, Radio Arrays, Supercomputers, massive underground chambers, that spurs the sometimes Sicilian struggles between the sexes. As science pushes the edge, funding becomes more subject to whims, it will only get harder - when you are bound to an ancient academic system.

    What Science needs are the people who can either succeed in the system and get the funding and access, while display the leadership needed to build a Scientific enterprise. .Or find new ways, channels to get the resources, whether by using kickstarter or building your own machinery. The people who make things happen so other Scientists can do science are the ones who win the respect, and if you are creative and clever enough Suzie, you can be one of those Leaders.

  8. Where are the black people?

    1. Yes I agree - there are at least one or two asian laureates there, but the diversity in general is pretty poor. These messages reinforce the stereotype and do nothing to promote diversity among gender or otherwise. But based on 'current' scientists rather than nobel laureates, I think the future is at least a little more diverse. Let's try encouraging everyone and doing away with the negative work environment where no-one ever gives praise in academic science.