Yesterday was a mixed day for women in science. Bright and early in the morning, I sat plugged into Skype waiting for the BBC World Service to interview me about subconscious bias against female scientists. The news hook was a piece that had appeared in the Guardian a few days earlier from an anonymous female professor talking about the most recent of many studies (which I blogged about here) showing the bias in action. My spot was to be the last, and the program was due to go off air in less than ten minutes.
The live program was being streamed into my headphones as I waited to go on air. After some cheerful cricket news, the guy before me came on: a fish geneticist who answered all the interviewer’s questions in a slow, roundabout and complex manner. It soon became very clear that, despite the interviewer’s best efforts to cut him short, there was going to be no time to talk about women in science that day.
Sure enough: “You’re going to hate me, but we’ve run out of time,” a voice said apologetically into my headphones at precisely 7.59.
“That’s OK,” I replied. “It’s not the first time I’ve been out-talked by a male scientist.”
Never fear, however: this disappointment was very nicely mitigated by subsequent happenings. Last night, after months of plotting and planning by myself and fellow University College London colleagues Uta Frith and Philippa Talmud, UCL Women had its glorious launch event.
UCL Women is a grassroots networking group for academic staff in the sciences, engineering and mathematics at UCL, open to staff at the post-doctoral level and above. (We had to restrict the numbers somehow, but if our starting pool proves manageable we may expand our criteria to other categories in future.) A significant expansion of a smaller group founded by Uta Frith called ‘Science and Shopping’, which I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of for a number of years now, UCL Women is informal and aims to provide access to information and advice that might otherwise be hard to come by. The main medium of interaction will be drop-in sessions where people can socialize, but we also plan to have a few formal events too. Research Fortnight had a nice piece on us earlier in the day, which includes some thoughts from Uta about what the group will be like.
We had no idea how much interest there would be when we first dreamt this up, but the hundred free slots to our launch sold out in a few days and 45 people on the waitlist couldn’t get in. So clearly the women at my university feel the need for something like this.
The meeting was chaired by Philippa Talmud (Professor of Cardiovascular Genetics), and the fabulous Vivienne Parry (Writer, Broadcaster, Vice-Chair of UCL Council) moderated a panel of speakers addressing the questions “How did I get here? What am I doing?”. I felt very outclassed on the panel, which also included Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience), Mary Collins (Dean of Life Sciences), Uta Frith (Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development), Jean McEwan (Dean of Medical Sciences), and Liora Malki-Epshtein (Lecturer, UCL Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering). Afterwards, Vivienne opened up the discussion within the wider audience, which was packed into the room along with one lone, brave male photographer (who held his head high, I’m happy to report).
What impressed me most was how many female professors were in the room. I am quite sure it was the most I’d ever seen together in my life – with only 15% in life sciences overall, they are certainly few and far between. And there was an amazing energy – a sense that passions were running high, that we were a force to be reckoned with – that there was nothing that we couldn’t achieve if we worked together in a positive and collegial way.
As one person tweeted:
At launch of @uclwomen: last time I was part of an entirely female audience this big, I was at school! Amazing.
— Claire Warwick (@clhw1) January 16, 2013
If you’re a female academic at UCL and would like to get involved, follow us on Twitter (@UCLWomen) or visit our website for regular updates. It’s all still in the chaotic planning stages, but it’s already shaping up to be something really special.