Doing it for the girls: being a women in research

I went to a wedding a few years ago and was chatting to a girl I kind of knew from Uni. She explained that she now worked in finance – fund management to be exact. Coincidentally she had come across my Mum – my mum is a journalist who writes about finance. This girl had approached me to tell me what a legend my mum is. She described her as a role model for all the women in the industry. If I am honest I was a little stumped. My mum is just, you know, my mum. But my mum started working, continued working and has a successful career in journalism since the early 70s.

My mum gave me some really useful advice before I went into my fellowship interview 3 years ago. She told me to “think like a man”. Initially I was rather surprised. Surely this is sexist! By thinking like a man we acknowledge a perceived difference. That somehow men are more likely to get these kinds of grants than women in 2018!? That men feel more sure of themselves. But it really did help. I recall waiting to go into my fellowship interview with four  men- all looking super clever in their business suits. I decided that the other people in that waiting room looked like they knew what they were doing, like they had it all together, like they were winners. I couldn’t decide whether to keep my cardigan on or off. What would make a better impression? Yet no one else in the room seemed to be worrying about anything (on the outside). Consequently I remember thinking oh well- I’ll just go in and go for it. I pretended to feel like the men in the waiting room looked. Perhaps simply encouraging me to pretend that I was someone else who knew what they were talking about (no matter what the gender) was the most useful part of my mum’s advice.

In general being a women has never held me back. I am a female with two sisters. I went to a girls school. Then speech and language therapy; a predominantly female profession. Perhaps this journey has actually given me an advantage. Having children and taking maternity leave is usual. Part time job roles are common. People often split posts – even managerial posts. I feel that the profession is well equipped for families- it is easy to continue developing a career and being an active parent (my sisters in law and finance have had to struggle somewhat more with this balance).

Before I went into research my colleagues suggested that this career trajectory wouldn’t be any where near as accommodating for these needs as working as an SLT. People did and still do say that doing research or further study whilst having children must be far too difficult to juggle. I have actually found the opposite. Doing this has worked extremely well for my family. Research is much more flexible- I can go to school assemblies, take my children to medical appointments and host play dates without taking any additional time off work. In fact none. I tweak my hours to suit my needs- I work in the evenings, in the car while they do their various extra curricular activities and occasionally at weekends if I want to.

And there are some wonderful female role models in my profession and more generally at UCL. Not least my very own supervisors- both very successful female researchers at UCL. The head of my department- a female. The women who built the building I study in- a female. The building itself having been named after two sisters who invested in the first women’s medical college which is what the building then hosted.  I feel ever so lucky, if I need to I now pretend to feel like they all look- strong and confident and clever. I try to think about what my supervisor would say or do in this situation. I try to think about the phrase that my head of department would use. I try to harness the drive that those first female medical students would have had. All these wonderful females to aspire to on my research journey.

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