Skip to content

Gender Equality in Science, Pathways to Success – by Pauline Matthews

It was an exceptional experience to be listening to such positive people at this event, held at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit on 10th March 2015. Every single speaker mentioned that the path to getting ahead, for women in Science, is not an easy one.

All of them talked about their families and some had photos of them too. We were getting to see people as whole people and not just ‘professionals’.

The speakers were both women and men. This, to me, was particularly engaging.  Of course we realise that gender issues affect men as well as women, but this is seldom brought into the open by men or society in general.  We were also reminded that gender equality is a complicated issue. The speakers all work or have worked in Cambridge.

Susan Gathercole, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit started us off with ‘The times they are a changing’.

Next we had Tim Bussey, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge

Barbara Sahakian was the next speaker, Department of Psychiatry who’s lecture was entitled ‘Women in Neuroscience’.

Then we had Rik Henson, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences, his title was ‘Science and Family’.

Francesca Frappe from Kings London started off the afternoon slot. She has been a Lecturer in Cambridge from 1993 to 2001.

Also included before the lunch break was Anne Forde, Careers Adviser for Life Sciences postdocs.

There was a great choice of food at lunchtime and plenty of networking went on and of course AWiSE was well represented by Gayle and Penny.

I do not see how I can do this event justice, however I will choose a few ‘jewels’ from all of the speakers and encourage you all to jot down a few of these tips keeping in mind that it was not easy for them either.

The first speaker, Susan Gathercole was very clear about gender equality issues needing continual attention.  When senior posts were looked at in the MRC, it was established that there were no women in the top three bands.  Sue is now the Unit Director of Leader, Memory and Perception group.

She got support from Post Docs and was very thankful for this. There is now a mentoring system in place which has a high uptake where support can be given and opportunities discussed.

Recruitment, she said needs analysis to identify certain issues and progression opportunities.

People need confidence to ask for support and Sue is very pleased that in her Department, staff have the confidence to do this.

Tim Bussey was the next speaker and his lively session included the Thomas Dolby video, ‘She blinded me with Science’. This was originally a 1980s video. The message that came across to me was that Science is fun, rewarding and full of young fashion conscious people who are not all dressed in white coats!

Tim showed us some data from research that was based on parents’ ambitions for their children’s careers. The results showed that some parents do not consider careers as engineers or scientists for their daughters. Added to this, some teachers have an unconscious bias in the classroom to support these findings.

Tim’s wife has a PhD in robotics and Tim said that they both share childcare.


Barbara Sahakian is Professor of Neuropsychology in Cambridge.

Her talk was very much based on how you can help others to reach their potential. She said that leadership is not only about realising your own potential, but helping others to do so as well. Your vision must include bringing others along.

Some of the tips she has for young scientists are as follows:

  • Learn from your mistakes and don’t be harsh on yourself
  • Don’t be harsh on others, ‘not all like me’
  • Be resilient and positive, mostly you will get what you want
  • Be flexible, maybe not exactly what you want, go for it anyway
  • Celebrate your achievements and have confidence in yourself
  • Engage the public in Science
  • Have a vision for a better future and always stay in touch.

She told us that her two daughters are now Neuroscientists.

Rik Henson is Programme Leader, Memory and Perception Group in the MRC, Cambridge.

Rik told us about research that has been undertaken regarding fathers taking parental leave in some countries, where twelve weeks out of fifty six could be taken. Fiva et al’s findings showed that this was not always a positive experience.

The CBU unit of the MRC have been aware of caring responsibilities and ask that meetings should be held between 10.00am and 3.00pm, thus ensuring there is not a clash with school pick up times.

Rik also told us that research done by Hunt in 2010 signified that no more women leave Science than other professions. He also said that career breaks on CVs are now being more recognised in a positive light and the Wellcome Trust have a re-entry scheme for post doctorates.

The MRC are very aware of caring responsibilities and further information can be found on their website:

I asked him about women’s difficulties returning to work after maternity leave. Rik was very adamant in saying that if you were a good employee before maternity leave you would continue to be so. Additionally, he ‘does not buy’ that you could not catch up in two weeks, concentrating on what you have missed out on.

We then had Anne Ford from the Careers Service

Amongst other jewels of wisdom, Anne suggested that when you are exploring jobs, you ask yourself:

  • What is important to me
  • What can I compromise on
  • Prepare well
  • Put your dream job under the microscope


We then had a break for lunch and the next speaker was Francesca Frappe, Director of the MRC Social, Genetic and Development Psychiatry Centre, Kings College, London. Her title was ‘Challenges and possible solutions’.

Although Francesca works in London now, she has lectured in Cambridge.

Francesa has three children and told us that she can well remember how tired she was with small children, including a child with sight difficulties.

She said that you cannot plan everything, but you must make yourself visible.

One of her jewels of wisdom was to look at people who are going to be promoted and discuss with them what the role entails and the training needed.

Sometimes you have to take risks and do not keep putting things off. ‘Do it now’ and not in fifteen years time!

When she was on maternity leave she kept in touch with the research she was involved in and had someone to carry it on when she was not there. She mentioned the ‘Extra Hands Award’ which helped financially with this support.

Francesca said that Sarah-Jane Leslie, a U.S. Researcher, highlights how women have to make themselves visible to be acknowledged.

Francesca’s message was definitely to keep yourself ‘visible’.

At this stage, I was sorry to leave and am sure that there was lots more to be gained from listening to the other speakers.


Pauline Matthews, Return to Work Coach













No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: