One of Britain's leading female scientists has urged high-flying women to "spend every penny you've got" on childcare, saying that many are held back by the guilty "burden" of feeling they constantly have to be available to look after their families.
Professor Uta Frith, a Fellow of the Royal Society, British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences, criticised the idea that women "have to do everything", adding: "I have one piece of advice … throw money at it. Spend every penny you've got on getting proper childcare, because I'm really convinced that is something that holds these high-flying women back."
In an interview with The Independent, Professor Frith also addressed the societal pressure faced by working mothers: "They think they have to be these stay-at-home mothers to some extent, which is completely ridiculous – that they have to feel a bit guilty if they are not always available. And I think, hasn't it occurred to [them] that you could pay somebody to do this … There is a funny burden there … you carry it with you."
Her comments come amid wider concerns that the highest echelons of British business and politics are still off-limits to women. The departures of Cynthia Carroll at the mining company Anglo American and Dame Marjorie Scardino at Pearson publishers in recent weeks mean there are now only two female directors running top 100 FTSE-listed companies.
David Cameron has also been criticised for a paucity of women in the Cabinet, with Dame Helen Ghosh saying last week that an "Old Etonian clique" compounds the pressures of family life to prevent women from taking top government jobs.
Professor Frith, an expert in neuroscience and psychology best known for her work on autism, said she did not accept that there is only one "magic formula" which women have to find in order to juggle work and home commitments. "There are so many different paths," she says.
Now nearing the end of her career, Professor Frith has made great strides towards increasing the visibility of women in science.
When she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2005, she realised she was joining a "very exclusive club" – women make up only six per cent of the Fellowship – and decided to find ways to encourage other women to follow suit. When her emails to other female Fellows went unanswered, she started to create her own network from acquaintances, inviting them to meet her at the Royal Society and urging them to "come inside … be there, sit there, have a look around."
Holding meetings every two months, the network thrived and numbers have swelled to such an extent that the Royal Society can no longer accommodate them all. This prompted Professor Frith and others to found UCL Women, a network which provides monthly drop-in sessions giving professional women the opportunity to meet and share their experiences.