Women in Science
Deciding on a career in science
The women we interviewed gave many reasons for having a career in science. As young children they were often interested in the natural world (animals, plants, insects), and also mechanical things and how they worked. Several described being intensely curious about the world and plaguing their parents and older siblings with constant questions.
From early childhood, Fran collected and studied insects. Alison B had ‘one of those fantastic encyclopaedias with lots of pictures of animals’. Helen M had to have an operation at age 16 years and found she liked the hospital environment. This encouraged her interest in medicine. Lois was always interested in medicine and ‘the people side’ of science. There are images of her as a toddler running round the garden with a syringe (without a needle!) that her surgeon uncle had given her. When women were talking about their early life it is striking that nearly all described both their parents as having rewarding careers. Several parents were scientists themselves, and many had at least one parent (often the mother) who was a teacher. Persephone’s parents were both scientists; her father worked in industry, but also wrote plays and poems and she never felt her parents were pushing her towards science.
Parental Role Models
Several women who trained in medicine were from ‘medical families’. Jane M comes from a ‘long line of doctors’. Christine’s father was an academic physician and it looked like ‘a very interesting and challenging career path to follow’.
Teachers and School
Sally always knew she wanted to study life sciences. Her father was an organic chemist in industry. Anna recalled that there were science clubs at her school, and that she took part in many science activities that were outside the normal curriculum. From age 12 years Elspeth had an inspirational physics teacher, who was a nun. Elspeth said, ‘She was my absolute heroine in my scientific career and she taught me right up to ‘A’ level physics.’ School teachers had a huge influence on young women’s decision to study science. Fran had a ‘really wonderful biology teacher.’ Fran said, ‘She was one of these inspirational, very eccentric biologists who are just passionate about the subject and it was really her who engaged me in thinking this was a good career.’
Many of the women we talked to had been to an all girls’ school, where they felt they hadn’t been subjected to unhelpful stereotypes about science being a ‘masculine’ subject. Carolyn recalled going to a university maths day before she applied to university. She said, ‘There were about five of us, walked into this room which was just all boys and they said, “Girls doing maths?”, and I thought, “Oh, don’t girls do maths?”, and that was the first time, you know, it just wasn’t an issue at my school, which I realise now I was very lucky to have that.’ In contrast, Blanca went to a mixed French school where ‘it was all very equal’ and the best students (who were all women in her year) were encouraged to do maths and physics as ‘the normal path.’
Barbara liked doing maths and science at school because her teachers couldn’t judge her ‘on a whim’. She didn’t like doing arts subjects because if she wrote an English essay, for example, some teachers would mark it highly but others might not. At the time she felt that science, by contrast, was precise (she now recognises that she was being naïve in this regard).
Work-experience during the school holidays inspired some girls to continue with science. Irene T went to a very good comprehensive school in Oxfordshire. She had some work experience in a hospital and some in a lab. She loved the lab experience.
When Maggie was a child she wanted to be a nurse ‘like many little girls.’ Her mother worked as a medical secretary and encouraged her to be a doctor instead. Maggie said, ‘I never quite understood this because I probably thought doctors were men and nurses were women. But it did have an impact on me I suppose and (at secondary school) it became very clear to me that I should be aiming to be a doctor.’ Catherine initially wanted to be a policewoman (like Juliet Bravo on the tele), then also briefly thought about becoming a nurse after meeting some ‘beaming and welcoming women’ nurses at a pre GCSE careers fair at school where they contrasted with the rather severe and miserable man behind the ‘doctors stand.’
We talked to several women who had been all-rounders at school. Irene R and Helen A both commented that medical doctors often have broad interests. They had been good at both arts and sciences at school. Helen’s ‘A’ levels were in languages and science; she did better at languages but ‘always really enjoyed the science side’ and wanted to do something that made a difference to people. Lucy didn’t make her decision to go into medicine until she had to choose between arts and sciences at ‘A’ level.
Some of the women we talked to hadn’t studied science at school, hadn’t been very good at science at school, or had started their career in science after one or more diversions. Jamie had studied English literature and history of medicine and worked in publishing before she started to work in health sciences. Leanne left high school early and returned to take exams via night school classes. She was amazed when an inspiring lecturer on her degree course encouraged her to consider a PhD. She thought he was joking and that she wouldn’t be able to do it. But she did very well in her honours year, moved onto a doctorate and found that she loved the work. She is now an associate professor.
Bryony grew up on a farm and was always curious; what she ‘loved about science was that there was never an answer really’. Her school was not very academic and wasn’t able to offer chemistry ‘A’ level in the small sixth form since she was the only one who wanted to do it. She had to teach herself, with help from her father who was good at chemistry, but it wasn’t easy and she was relieved to get into university to study genetics. Kay was very good at maths at her ‘girls’ school, where she ‘wasn’t allowed to do biology’ She came to Oxford to study chemistry. Her tutor encouraged her to spend her research year in the biochemistry department – this was a ‘turning point for me because I loved it.’
Alison W started a degree in environmental science. When she decided that she had made a mistake and wanted to change to biology her father (an industrial chemist) encouraged her to work in a lab first. She found that she loved it and started on the route to academic science. Samira was at school in north Africa where she had good teachers who were enthusiastic about science but she had never been inside a lab, or ‘seen a pipette’ until she came to London aged 19 years old to start her degree in genetics.
Enjoyment of Research
The women we talked to had studied a wide variety of science subjects including biology, zoology, physics, chemistry, genetics, engineering, nutrition, community health and medicine. Many of these degrees included industry placements. Lucy, for example, did three years of undergraduate chemistry and then a year of research in a lab, which she really enjoyed. That year in a lab convinced her that she wanted to do research for the rest of her life. Blanca also spent a year of her BSc in medical biochemistry doing oncology research.
Jane L enjoyed her university placements partly because she liked being ‘part of a team’.
Making a Difference
Xin grew up in China with parents who are both doctors. She wanted to do science rather than medicine so that she could have a ‘broader impact’ than seeing patients one by one. Another woman trained in medicine and realised that she was most interested in the ‘physiology and pharmacology and those mechanisms behind how the body works’. Several other women realised that research could change people’s lives and said that it was the idea of applied science that prompted them to start a PhD or to continue with research.
Women found that research was not only interesting but it gave them a chance to be creative. When Lucy was studying medicine she had the opportunity to spend a year doing research, which she really enjoyed. By the time she finished her medical degree she decided that she wanted to treat patients but that research was also important. She wanted to understand why people were in hospital in the first place. She also wanted to understand the human body so that she and her patients ‘wouldn’t be afraid of it.’
Medical students may choose to take a year out from their medical studies to study for another degree. This is called an intercalated degree. Women who started medicine, and who took an intercalated degree, were often inspired by their year doing research and so decided on a career in academic medicine.
We talked to some women who always knew that they wanted to be doctor, although sometimes they had ended up in a different branch of medicine to that which they had first intended. Jenny’s father was a greengrocer and her mother a health visitor – she isn’t sure why she always wanted to be a doctor. When she went to medical school she thought she would eventually become a general practitioner. She became interested in epidemiology and after her second year at medical school she spent a year doing research.