Why I ..deplore the waste of Britain's women scientists

February 22, 2002

While a few academics may bemoan their lack of promotion from a good position to an even better one, spare a thought for the senior women who have worked alongside them for decades without a position at all.

Most will be able to identify with my own case history, which began auspiciously enough with a college research fellowship (actually I had two) but which was soon nipped in the bud. To be told (as I was) that "I had a husband so I didn't need a career", and to be judged (as I was) a poor employment prospect because "I would soon be stopping to raise a family", could not be challenged legally then as it can now. To have applications for positions in the department of my husband and collaborator repeatedly rejected (as mine were) on the grounds that new blood was wanted is recognised nowadays as the "two-body problem" but is no easier to solve. The explanation given to me, aged 40, that the next vacant job in the department would go to a younger person ("bright young man" were the actual words) did not chime with the appointment of a man aged 41 "because he had a family to support and a mortgage to pay".

Thus my career path turned into a cul-de-sac of short-term contracts, constrained by the need to stay near my home and children. For one's contract and salary to be downgraded (as mine was) to that of technician just to get a grant was hardly merited, but the alternative was worse. To have even that renewal application rejected (as mine was) by a later committee that "found it completely implausible to continue to represent a (scientist) of her standing as a technician" brought only stalemate.

Outside opinions that it was "high time the United Kingdom support a woman of her capability" fell on deaf ears, and my suggestions that I attempt something ambitious were ridiculed ("only for high-fliers"). My ideas and writing did nevertheless win eight years' support from a highly respected foundation, but at age 52, two very productive ideas and 26 major papers later, it was suggested that I retire. The impenetrable barriers disallowing repeated applications or limiting eligibility to those under 45 had gone up. I had joined the silent majority of unwanted women in science.

Since then - mere oblivion. A small but worthy overseas award plus bits of leftover grants from sympathetic colleagues abroad have enabled me to honour my professional commitments - and to keep body and soul together. People of influence, recognising the fingerprints of gender bias and ageism, call my predicament "deplorable" and "a disgrace" but suggest no remedies. Indeed, what machinery is there in the UK to protect us women scientists once we have no voice in the laboratories that we used to help sustain? Scientists without formal affiliation do not get nominated to committees, whether for scientific policies, funding, refereeing or even debating the situation of women in science. And they are barred from applying for most academic grants.

To jettison the knowledge, the experience and the commitment of so much expertise on excuses of marital status or related reasons and to be unconcerned that the victims vanish into an abyss of apparent failure is a serious waste as well as a serious injustice. A whole sect of proficient and expensively trained scientists have been, and are continuing to be, affected and discouraged in this way.

But for some the fight for survival goes on. Being officially invisible, without status or affiliation, without funds even to attend the meetings of the international working groups that I continue to chair has been burdensome for the morale but salutary for the soul. I still love my research, and am competent at it. Age should not count; I'm ready for a fresh start - but in a different country.

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