Amazing Female Scientist

May 15th, 2008

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.


8 Responses to “Amazing Female Scientist”

  1. Marshall on May 15, 2008 3:36 pm

    Having an understanding husband probably helps. :p

  2. Well-Known Scientist on May 15, 2008 4:56 pm

    It is better to ponder the nature of human being, the role and “the reasons” of genders. The question whether it is wise is not the key to approve any attempt. “Yes! It is wise!”, however, is it right? Surely the answer totally depends on the questioner.

    The reason of the choice of the ways, family or career, is mostly(not sure but need a fair survey) because of easiness. Even though the tasks on that way(family) are not easy yet.

    Some prefers to fight, negotiate or give up. Each is still the way. Is your choice is wise? Yes or no! You want to keep your child respond and grow under your care, and to develop his or her(or their) intellects. Somehow, you can still realize the all responsibilities or supervisions as a scientist.

    But we never forget that your choice is not the way or wrong or right. Because this is not a disadvantage for the gender. From both your side and mine, each ‘gender’ has its own ‘advantage’, “disadvantage” or “unfairness”. Although the ways intersect with lives, the comparison or choice between family and science(or say career) is not wise, but sentimental.

  3. Jeff on May 16, 2008 11:29 pm

    There’s a big difference between voluntarily working 16 hours because you want to be successful, and needing to work 16 hours because a child completely depends on you.

    Many women don’t have the choice, and certainly only a small percentage by definition have to consider letting success slip to raise a family.

    Many people work 16 hours just for the opportunity to get a raise, let alone achieve the sort of renown that an Oxford professor would attain.

    There is nothing inhibiting a female Oxford professor from raising children - including adopting - except their own ambitions.

  4. Kevin Kitura on May 20, 2008 10:50 am

    Hey Kirsten,

    You should check out Mary Ann Glendon, I think she is a much better role model for you to follow.

    Also don’t feel that your hurting your career by taking time out to start a family. It may actually make you better scientist because it’s going give you a new life’s perspective. For instance it’s amazing how fast Neo-Darwinism gets shelved when you have to teach your own kids right and wrong. It’s only then you realize a little fear of God is a healthy thing.

    (An aside, check out http://www.ejectionsite.com/stapp.htm )

    Another thing I want to point out is that
    it’s not the quantity of work that determines whether your successful or not. It’s the quality, methodology,atitude and philosphy which you approach your work which determines whether people will place increasingly more trust in you. If people feel you are trust worthy and rational then obviously your going to get the nod when it’s comes to important positons. But if they don’t have that warm and fuzzy feeling then obviusly you will hit the glass ceiling pretty quickly.

    Stay Cool,

    Kevin

  5. Dennis Wright on June 4, 2008 1:11 pm

    Susan Greenfield was a guest “motivational speaker” at a conference held by the large firm where I work.

    She was talking about the mysteries of consciousness, and giving the Royal Institution a bit of a plug. A really polished and interesting speaker. If you’re looking for a role model there is none better.

  6. Mike on June 9, 2008 9:08 am

    The world must be peopled. Those who have children must raise them. Most “careers” are still just jobs, a way to make money, maybe having some fun at the same time. If you meet someone and commit with them to start a family, then do so. However, having children at a young age is advantageous for many reasons.

    I am a man. I put off having children until I got tenure. I published no papers the year after my first child was born. My wife quit her job a few months after our first was born. Regardless of whether you are a man or woman, if having a child does not impact your “career”, you are probably not doing your job as a parent. If you have kids, then raise them.

    I will be accused of being old-fashioned and I am. Kids need their mothers for at least the first three years. The kids need to be breastfed with blatant disregard for present societal norms regarding the subject. Fathers must be extremely supportive of mothers during this early time, proving good parenting and respite care. Nature made things the way they are. Tough cookies. Give evolution some credit. Beware the doublespeak that arises when we say that raising kids is the most important job in the world, as we ship the kids off to be raised by someone else, not extended family. Kids are not stupid. Look carefully at the illusion of what society thinks is “supposed” to be for a “professional” and what is of deep-seated, long-lasting real value. This goes not only for thinking about a family, but with respect to everything. Examined closely enough, one finds that much of what we think is high and mighty is just a house of cards.

  7. Ian Collins on September 22, 2009 9:06 am

    Kirsten,
    Its like everyone is being punished for daring to love;even the most successful are not free of the painful,ruthless cogs of so-called modern life which eat up our most intimate relationships.I am neither scientist nor successful,and yet these same cogs have been trying to grind me down,as well.There is a lot of great advice out there;but ultimately it comes down to what makes one truly happy inside that counts.NEVER let another person,religion,or law tell you how to be happy!!

  8. Carin Bondar on March 10, 2010 2:11 pm

    Dr. Kiki you are amazing! I strive to be like you, and YES am constantly putting that on hold because of my 3 toddlers. I think that us cool science gals should, biologically speaking, have our genes represented in future generations :) However, it’s so difficult to balance the time required by small children.

    My hubby and I were just discussing this morning how completely ‘pathetic’ a newborn human is. They need us for absolutely everything, so what are we to do? I’ll be spending my time struggling for the answer and admiring your work until then :)

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