Women in Science - “We need the best people as scientists”

Interview with Baroness Susan Greenfield

Women represent less than 30% of scientific researchers around the world according to recent research from UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics. There is, however, considerable variation among regions with women accounting for 46% of the research in Latin America and the Caribbean but only 15% in Asia.
Baroness Greenfield is a Professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and a Member of the House of Lords. She was the keynote speaker at an international rountable, Women and research: tangible progress? held at UNESCO headquarters on 1 December.

Interview by Edna Yahil, UNESCO's Bureau of Public Information.

What is the situation of women in the field of science?
It has changed a lot over the past ten or twenty years, but there is still a lot of work to be done. It is easier now for women at the junior level. In biomedical sciences, almost 50% of the students are women but there are still problems in the physical sciences.

There are still serious problems as women progress in their careers. In the physical sciences, you have 90% men and 10% women across the board. In biological sciences, however, there are about the same number of men and women in the beginning. But around the late 20’s, early 30s, women begin to drop out. By the stage of Professor, the rate is just as bad as for the physical sciences, that is 90% men and 10% women

What is the biggest hurdle that women face?
The big problem is for women in their late 20’s when they have to make a choice. Do they choose not to have children? This is what I did. Or do they choose to have children at the biologically optimal stage but run the risk that they won’t come back to a job at all because they don’t yet have tenure? Or do they delay having a child until they are beyond the biologically optimal age? None of these choices are really ideal for women—it’s a problem that hasn’t been solved. How can the scientific community accommodate women so that they can have children without compromising their careers?

What can we do to change things?
There is no quick fix. Men and childless women are not taking time off. If you are taking time off, it is happening just at the time that you have to publish papers to get ahead. One option that I have proposed is funding schemes that give money to women who have children. That way women who want children could apply for a fellowship that is not available to anyone else. This enables women to come back and work for two years to reestablish themselves in their field. They would be competing with other women in the same situation.

Why is the lack of women in science important?
Because we are entering into an era where science and technology are at the centre of society, and we need the best people as scientists. Not just doing research, but in the media, politics, industry. You need the best possible brains and it is crazy to eliminate 50% of the talent. And also each individual should be able to fulfill herself to the best of her potential. If you have great potential as a scientist it is a great shame if you are prevented from doing that because you are a woman. Also the world can’t afford to have all that expensive education and training wasted.

What opportunities are there for young women studying science today?
What women don’t realize is that science has a very exciting range of options. So for example, I am in the House of Lords now—and there are about 10% of us who have some sort of science credentials. It is hugely exciting to go into politics or to do law or the media as a scientist. It is not just bench science because science is so central now. Traditionally the worst sectors in terms of female representation are biotechnology and academia.

Photo © Baroness Susan Greenfield
Publication Date 04-12-2006 8:00 am
Publication Date 04-12-2006 8:00 am
Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific