Women told to find 'lab of their own' to succeed

June 4, 2004

Forget textbooks and scientific role models, struggling female scientists seeking inspiration should turn to the novelist Virginia Woolf, according to Julia Goodfellow, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Speaking at a meeting organised by the Women into Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative at Cambridge University a fortnight ago, Professor Goodfellow said that Woolf's book A Room of One's Own had inspired her more than any other.

"A woman must have money - preferably a grant from the BBSRC - and a lab of her own if she is to be able to undertake scientific research and make a big splash," Professor Goodfellow told delegates, taking as inspiration Woolf's similar advice for aspiring female writers.

But Professor Goodfellow pointed out that female scientists were frequently held back because they lacked the self-confidence of many of their male counterparts when applying for research funding, publishing results or attempting to climb the career ladder.

As a result, she said, women were flooding out of the "leaky pipeline" supplying the biosciences.

As many women as men graduate in the biosciences, but women fill only one-quarter of lecturer positions and 10 per cent of professorships in the field.

To change that situation will require a culture change because women, unlike men, are not motivated by power, said Professor Goodfellow, who started her career as a lecturer in the crystallography department at Birkbeck College, University of London, and rose to become vice-master of the college.

She told the largely female audience of academics: "Trying to persuade women with male incentives is unlikely to affect the majority."

Instead, Professor Goodfellow stressed the need to improve the image of science as a career for people of both sexes.

She added that the science turn-off was happening at an early age, and she denouncedthe school science curriculum as "not inspiring".

But she rejected the idea that girls were put off science because it was too difficult. "If you talk to sixth-form girls about why they are not doing science, it is not because they do not feel they can, but it is more like (they feel about) Latin - 'I have done it, I can do it, but I don't want to do it any more,'" she said.

She added that young women saw science as irrelevant unless they wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

Alison Richards, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, told delegates that she was keen to examine work-life balance issues - for both women and men.

She said: "Are women making choices to opt out, or is something else going on?"

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