Happy International Women’s Day 2012!

 “Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don’t let others discourage you or tell you that you can’t do it. In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t.”  

Gertrude B. Elion, Nobel Laureate 1988.

A few days ago, Prof Alice Roberts, the first Professor of Public Engagement, tweeted about the still shockingly low number of female professors in science. 

In my opinion, there are two main reasons for the low numbers of female scientists in academia. The first one is linked to inspiring girls and female students to consider science as a career path. The second one is a problem in retaining women in academia after they have obtained their PhD.

How does a scientist look like? In the worst case, like a man in a white lab coat with crazy hair, goggles and a couple of test tubes (see “Draw a scientist” Test). But even if images of female scientists are starting to be more prominent in media and society, they still suffer from being portrayed either as “frumpy, glasses-wearing cartoon geeks or uber-sexy, Bond-film glamour pusses – who shake their hair out of their specs once they have split the atom” (see this article by Hannah Richardson, BBC, 2011).

How can we change this stereotypical perception and encourage girls and women to follow their passion and take up science as a career? One way is to provide more and better role models of female scientists, both in traditional print media and online. A great resource is the website “Making women visible online” by the UKRC. This website offers guides and codes of good practice for websites and online communities, as well as studies and statistics on gender equality in science, engineering and technology. It also provides interesting links to opinion pieces and websites featuring the voices of female scientists, such as the GetSETWomen Blog and the UKRC Women Bloggers list. Another great resource specific to Plant Sciences is the “Women in Plant Science” website by the ASPB (American Society of Plant Biologists).

“I was just so interested in what I was doing I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it. One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child, because only children can’t wait to get up in the morning to get at what they want to do.”

Barbara McClintock, Nobel Laureate 1983. 

Talking to other female colleagues, we find that even though we stress about every-day small things such as PCRs not working or the autoclave rota, some of our biggest constant worries are: Are we doing the right thing? Are we making the right decisions at the right time? Should we do another postdoc and establish ourselves in our field before starting a family? Or should we make use of the flexible hours as long as we still can – in fact, if we haven’t had children yet, have we missed the best window to have them? How would we cope with the stress of combining a demanding job and children? Do we even want to cope with the stress of combining both? If we don’t, how will we feel in ten years about this (biological clock and all that)? We are lucky in that we can have it all, if we want to – but at the same time, this is scary and can sometimes even feel paralysing. Even though I love my job, there were times in the past where I seriously considered to leave academia and get a 9-to-5 job because it just seemed so difficult to combine science with a “normal” life.

Therefore, my favourite publication about women in science is the booklet “Mothers in Science – 64 ways to have it all” by Prof Ottoline Leyser.  Being able to read stories of women in science is so important and I am glad that publications like this book exist. It shows that in fact there are many ways for women to shape their scientific careers. Maybe there is no “right” or “wrong”, but rather a “see what happens and go with the flow”?

What do you think? Are you a female scientist and are stressed about similar things? Would you like to share your story about how you got into science and where you think you are going? Maybe you have even decided to leave science? I would love to read your comments!


Anne Osterrieder

Anne Osterrieder is a Lecturer in Biology and Science Communication at Oxford Brookes University, UK. A plant cell biologist, she loves the Golgi apparatus, lasers and cats. She has her own blog at Plant Cell Biology.

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