This post first appeared here on the Huffington Post on 9th March 2016.
‘Science Needs Women’ says L’Oreal’s tagline succinctly for its For Women in Science Campaign. Science needs women to ensure the best science is done by the most talented individuals, whatever their gender. It needs women to be creative and to think laterally because currently far too many drop science prematurely at school. Even for those who stick with it post-18 the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ is still leaking despite many years of hard work by a wide range of organisations including WISE and the Institute of Physics. The challenge is particularly acute in the physical sciences, with only around 20% of A level entrants for physics being women. Without physics A level many university courses and careers are closed off, most notably the different strands of engineering.
The problems at school are largely cultural, being affected by societal and parental expectations as well as those of peers and teachers. Stereotypes abound. If girls are expected simply to wear pink and model themselves on Disney princesses they may be reluctant to admit to a burning love for mathematics or chemistry. Subsequently the societal problems are rather different. Far too often young women hear the message that a career in science and motherhood don’t mix, can’t mix. That it is ‘too difficult’ to combine the two, despite the evidence of many women to the contrary. Students believe this message. Despite being a professor and a mother of two, female students have said to my face ‘it can’t be done’.
In an attempt to demonstrate that what might be called ‘real life’ and a career in science can be combined, for women and men, the Royal Society has launched a new book in this week of International Women’s Day, highlighting the very different paths and solutions scientists at different stages in their careers have worked out. Single mothers, gay couples, those with disabilities and those in a more standard family setting are highlighted in the new publication. Parent Carer Scientist is the title of the book, a title which says it all. You can be all these things successfully and there is no ‘right’ way of doing it.
I think too often young women receive messages that say there is only one way to live your life, a nice linear progression from school to university, then into a career and a relationship. And if the relationship leads to children the presumption frequently seems to be that children are a ‘women’s problem’. There are so many things wrong with those two sentences! First of all, few people’s lives, however successful they may be, follow the ‘ideal’ model. Most people have setbacks be they personal or professional. You may get derailed for days, weeks months or even years if you are unlucky. You may be in the wrong place at the right time or the right place at the wrong time. Or, everything may go swimmingly until you break your leg (or worse), your parent dies or becomes dependent or your partner needs to move to the other end of the country. Life is never straightforward.
Furthermore, children do not turn up to order – there may be years of heartache first or they may turn up unplanned. They will almost invariably absorb more time and energy than is imaginable beforehand, as well as give more rewards. However, in the twenty first century children are not the mother’s problem. For couples they are the responsibility of both parents and the advent of shared parental leave in the UK makes this easier financially and practically.
The stories in the Royal Society book illustrate all these points, with vivid examples of scientists who have found their way through the maze of caring responsibilities and careers. No one is saying it is a trivial problem to crack. Every family is different. But it is time to move on from seeing success – in science or indeed in any other of the professions – as something that can only be achieved by giving up the rest of one’s life. As long as people continue to propagate that message we will, as a society, be effectively deterring many young women from flourishing. The business community will go on crying out for scientists and engineers. Young women will feel they cannot follow their dreams because these are incompatible with motherhood. Surely it is time we moved on. Read this book and be inspired. Share this book with your friends, your family and children to spread the word.