Chauvinists behind the centrifuges

Sooner or later it comes up. "So, er, do you have any problems with being a Woman in Science?" Ten years ago, I would have given an answer that today makes me simultaneously grind my teeth and spit tacks: "I've never had a problem. It's easy for a woman who isn't a good scientist to blame it on a chauvinist behind every centrifuge. They should stop whingeing; there isn't a problem. Scientific men are quite sweet."

We should all admit when we've been wrong: I'm now convinced that most scientific men are far from sweet and, rather more worryingly, that there are serious and real problems for women engaged in scientific research that need addressing right now. What brought about my conversion?

It would make a good story if it were one particular event, like the time when, returning from a pharmaceutical function in New Jersey, I shared a limo with three women, all almost at the top of the scientific corporate tree, but in the secrecy of the back seat whispering that yes, as women they were treated differently. But my realisation has been more gradual. In the old days when I was a humble graduate student (actually not 10 but over 20 years ago), I assumed that any slight - the most usual was that of being totally ignored - was due to my lowly position in the lab hierarchy. And I had no basis for comparison. But as I became more sure of myself and, with the inevitable roll of the years, more senior, things started to change.

First, there's the indisputable issue of numbers. Increasingly I was in an ever shrinking minority. Such blatant evidence of A Problem is of course, not special to science. But in my experience, basic scientific research, by its very nature, does after all present a special case. Any mother returning to her career, be it as a dentist, an architect, a journalist or a welder, will have retained basic skills and expertise such that she can presumably get up to speed and pick up where she left off. A woman having a baby before her mid-30s (the average age for gaining an academic established post), or even then not returning to research within a few months of her baby's birth, will be severely handicapped by not maintaining a steady stream of publications of original work. If you are competing for a post-doctoral position, or as a university lecturer, applying for a research grant of your own, publication track record is the gold standard.

Another peculiar difference between basic scientific research and other jobs and professions, is that, paradoxically, your outlook is more that of an artist. Whereas two doctors, or two bank managers or two car mechanics will, one hopes, give a similar performance, it is not so with fundamental science. No two scientists confronted with the same problem can be expected to think up the same experiments and thence to follow the same line of enquiry. Any scientific paper you produce is quintessentially yours. Given the intensely personal flavour of scientific research, it is easy to see how Women in Science can become such an emotive issue. Nasty little nagging questions bubble up about whether a woman's traits are not suited to science, or whether they do science in a different way, or whether they should or should not adopt a more man-like persona, and so on and so on. Inter- related issues include how to attract schoolgirls to science, how to deal with the kind of glass ceiling against which the ladies in the limo were ineffectual, how to cope with the childminder if you've suddenly had a brilliant idea and the experiment is going to run over time ...

There is no magic bullet for dealing with the problem of Women in Science because the term is an umbrella one for many conundrums. But if we deny these problems exist, or passively look to some imminent dawn in which everything will spontaneously resolve itself, then we are not only kidding ourselves, but potentially jeopardising British science of 50 per cent of its brain power.

! Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, Gresham Professor of Physic, London, and author of 'Journey to the Centers of the Mind' (Freeman pounds 17.95)