Laboratory casting couch; UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

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A colleague and I were discussing a prominent research group. When the name of one of the team, "Esmeralda", came up, he leaned forward with a conspiratorial nod: "Lochinvar [a celebrated male scientist] says she only got where she is by sleeping with Childe Roland [head of the group]". I was puzzled by this confidence: how might a scientific casting couch be realised?

Would Esmeralda have promised one night of what both would know was contrived passion, to then glide unopposed into a job where incompetence would be detected on day one? Alternatively, would they have an agreement for a more sustained package of antics? What if Esmeralda welched on the deal? Would she then be fired, irrespective of the quality of her work? I could not see how sex could be bargained for, or balanced with, scientific ability.

Moreover, I was puzzled as to why Childe informed Lochinvar. Such an arrangement, in the sexual climate of the Nineties, would hardly be the sign of the alpha male. Perhaps Lochinvar had made it all up. Why was my colleague so eager to swallow such an improbable set of circumstances, and anxious to pass on the salacious morsel. Had he temporarily forgotten I was a woman? I concluded that this story was a fiction designed to discredit Esmeralda.

Of course scientists are only human. So why the big deal, the special pleading for research scientists? It is because of the highly personalised nature of research - much of the success of what one does lies in being able to convince other grant-giving bodies, companies, or promotion boards, that you have to be taken seriously. Original science requires imagination, assertiveness and sheer bloody-mindedness not only in making discoveries, but in selling those discoveries to others. Unless even "new men" are made aware of the insidiousness of insinuations such as that whispered to my colleague, women will have their credibility weakened.

This is not the only example of how science and sex make for a queasy mixture. At the other end of the scale are the female graduate students supervised by middle-aged males. A recent survey showed that male doctoral students who worked closely with their scientific supervisor, flourished far better subsequently than female doctoral students. Why? My betting is that the close relationship between the middle-aged boss and the more bidable, often decorative, and impressionable younger woman, can reflect a less than healthy Svengali syndrome. Fine at the start: a symbiosis of massaged male ego on the one hand and care and attention on the other works well for all concerned. But what happens when she is due to fly the nest? For the male student the supervisor would have served as an all-conquering role model, but for the woman, he is far more likely to have been the protector.

Scientists will continue to be attracted to each other, but that is not the problem. It is the nudge-nudge, wink-wink whispering and vanity of the testosterone-challenged that can present a threat to a woman being judged on her true worth.

! Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Physic, London

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