Susan Greenfield on women in science: not much has improved in 10 years

A free podcast, released on International Women's Day, explores the challenges faced by female researchers in British science. The interviewee is Baroness Susan Greenfield.


"Only choose a career in research if you're prepared for long hours, crummy pay and no security…and prejudice. But if you do choose it, then there's nothing more exciting or fulfilling." – so concludes our podcast with Baroness Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford University, and well known popularizer of science.

To coincide with International Women's Day, Genome Biology has canvassed the thoughts of a number of leading female scientists on the opportunities and hurdles encountered by women in science today. In addition to the podcast with Susan Greenfield (listen below via streaming, or download here), we have published a Q&A article featuring our interviews with Caroline Dean, Mary Osborn, Alicia Oshlack and Janet Thornton.

Back in 2002, Greenfield worked on a study for the British Government that sought to identify the barriers facing women in science in the UK. They found, in particular, that provisions were not in place to help women struggling to balance child care with a research career – the resultant inequality of opportunity representing a key factor in the high male/female ratio at senior levels despite a pool of junior scientists with a 50/50 gender split.

Asked whether the situation has improved in the following decade, Greenfield responds that she doesn't think much has changed, and that it won't change "until people put much more money into maternity and childcare schemes, until they have crèches in much higher abundance near laboratories."

The difficulties of pursuing a science career in parallel to a family were a common theme in our conversations with the scientists. However, there was also a general agreement that the challenge is not an insurmountable one. Take home messages from the Q&A include the value of support from a mentor and the example set by role models – and that perhaps bioinformatics is a more child-friendly option than wet lab biology.

Despite the stagnation she perceives in gender equality, Susan Greenfield believes that, so long as you're completely passionate about science, a research career can be very rewarding: "Waiting for a result and it actually coming good, that is one of the most exciting things ever, to have an idea and you test it and eventually, despite all the caprices of the world, you're actually proven right – you feel a thrill of fulfilment that I can’t see any other way."

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clara b. jones

1. I read this media report with interest but, also, with continuing concern.
2. A serious scientific career requires uninterrupted, focused, targeted work. What do females require to “buy” this type of time?
3. If I am not mistaken, we haven’t systematically studied how successful female research scientists have managed to achieve respected positions in their fields. One, particularly, would like to see the results of such a study for female scientists with a partner, with children, and without significant financial resources.
4. Do we impose a disservice to young women and to science by not educating them about the downsides of motherhood and related options (e.g., marriage)?
5. Do we sufficiently educate young women about the types and intensities of competition in research science and the types of skills…and information…required to manage the competition to her own advantage?
6. How do we teach girls effective tactics and strategies for managing the challenges they will certainly face…including when to drop back to the 40 and when to retreat?
7. Perhaps, Francoise Giroud’s biography of Marie Curie and Giroud’s autobiography, I Give You My Word, should be required reading for females aspiring to be research scientists.
8. I am quite certain that I have read somewhere reliable that, in Russia, more females than men obtain graduate degrees in physics but that females cluster in applied physics, men, in theoretical [mathematical] physics. If these are confident data, should we place more emphasis upon sexually dimorphic preferences that might predict decision-making and success of females aspiring to be research scientists?

clara b. jones

Colleagues and I developed a survey tool (linked below) intended to assist the process of identifying promising future research scientists. This instrument has not been standardized; thus, we are unable to vouch for its reliability or validity. Nonetheless, the 61 characteristics that were tediously selected may serve to stimulate productive discussion on the topics addressed in your media report.

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