I just read a profile of an amazing female scientist, named Susan Greenfield. She’s a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, and the director of the Royal Institution in London. She, being a woman and having reached such a place of distinction within academia, is a rarity in science.
According to statistics from the Association for Women in Science, in 2001 women made up 20.6 percent of those people employed in tenured academic positions for more than 10 years. Career longevity for women in the sciences appears to be something that’s lacking.
A more recent report suggests that the reason for the attrition rate (52% of women in sciences leave with the greatest rate being approximately 10 years into the career path, which coincides with the average woman’s thirties) may be due in part to hostile work environments that fail to take the female role as mother into account.
A brief look at Susan Greenfield’s life suggests that she continues to contend with the male dominated scientific environment, and may have made some compromises to her personal life in order to be so successful.
“It’s unfair. I publish three or four papers a year in peer-reviewed journals,” she says. She fits it all in by “not doing what other people do: gardening, watching television, sleeping in late. I wake up between four and five. If it’s a London day, I get the 6.30 train from central Oxford, where I live. I’ll have a working breakfast here with my second in command, then a day of meetings or interviews. In the evening, I may chair an event or go to a reception.”
On Oxford days she wears T-shirt and jeans, but is still in the lab by 7.30am, planning experiments, applying for grants, analysing and writing papers. She plays squash three times a week. With a trainer. “He pushes me to improve my skills.” At weekends? “I write, read, prepare talks.”
Her marriage to Oxford professor of physical chemistry Peter Atkins ended in 2005. Is all this activity a way to escape loneliness? “You can be lonely when you’re with someone,” she says quickly, “as much as when you’re by yourself.”
It is somewhat of a chicken and egg question, however. Is it only driven personalities, male or female, who are able to succeed so outstandingly? Or, is it the environment that engenders the sink-or-swim behaviors; people learning, and thus believing that if they do not work 16 hour days they’ll never get anywhere, and only those who do so being rewarded. It puts most women in a position of having to choose between family and career.
Usually, family will win.
Yet, I’m among a growing number of women who have put off starting a family in order to pursue my career. Is this a wise choice? I will certainly find out sometime down the road. It’s certainly both a blessing and a hazard to be a woman in this century.Filed under Women in Science |