The macho world of scientific research

When I was interviewed for a lectureship at Oxford, where my husband worked, I was advised that a junior position would be more appropriate as it would enable me to go home and cook dinner.

I have spent over forty years in science and, I hope, have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the relationship between our genes and disease, particularly in relation to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But it very nearly wasn't so.

Upon graduating from Oxford University with a vocation for science, I initially decided to fulfil it through teaching. This, I had been advised, was the only scientific career I could reasonably combine with my husband's: he was a scientist who would move from institution to institution, and I would be expected to follow him.  Fortunately, the education professor who interviewed me thought otherwise. Teaching, he said, would be a waste of my talent. He urged me to do a PhD instead.

My interviewer was right. Research was my true passion, and I embarked on a successful career in science.

A career in science is never an easy choice, however, and particularly not for a woman in the 1970s. When I was interviewed for a lectureship at Oxford, where my husband worked, I was advised that a junior position would be more appropriate as it would enable me to go home and cook dinner. When I had a child, I could no longer work the long hours that were often expected. Without a supportive partner - and, crucially, a sympathetic employer - my career would have been short-lived.

The challenges I faced were not unique to me and nor are they entirely a thing of the past. The environment has improved, but as a report published by the Wellcome Trust shows, there is still some way to go: more women than men still drop out of research, and earlier in their careers. The reasons they cite chime with my own experiences.

Like many professions, science requires hard work. By its nature, it also requires robust challenge from your peers. Too often, though, this can translate into a culture where long hours are felt to equate to productivity, and where macho and adversarial behaviour is rewarded. This can be difficult for good researchers of both sexes, but the report finds that men and women feel it disadvantages women more.

Science needs a working environment that better recognises that individuals' personal circumstances and approaches to research differ, in ways still compatible with excellence. Collaboration is the lifeblood of science, but this need not always mean early-morning meetings or after-work drinks that don't suit the nursery run. When I was the mother of a small child, commuting from Oxford to London, I proved that it is quite possible to deliver first class research without working late into the night. It is too often assumed, wrongly, that it can't be done.

Women in science also need positive role models and, critically, mentoring and career support. I try to give advice where I can. Be aware of your limitations, I tell them, but above all be confident and give it a try - it nearly always works out. Those of us who have shown what can be done need to share our experience more widely. The young researcher struggling to balance research against family often needs only to see what is possible, and to be encouraged not to give up. Her enthusiasm and drive will do the rest.

Science is an exciting and fascinating field to work in. It needs diversity of talent to provide diversity of thinking. I have been fortunate enough to have lived and worked in a supportive and encouraging environment. I want this to be the same for today's scientists.

Dame Kay Davies is Deputy Chair of the Wellcome Trust and Professor of Anatomy at the University of Oxford

Women in science still face prejudice. Image: Getty
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The US election is now a referendum on the role of women

Melania Trump's recent defence of her husband's indefensible comments, shows why a Cinton victory is vital.

Maybe one day, when this brutal presidential election is over, Hillary Clinton will view Melania Trump with sympathy. The prospective Republican First Lady’s experience sometimes seems like an anxiety dream rerun of Clinton’s own time stumping for job of wife-in-chief back in 1992. Even before Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination, rumours about his infidelities were being kicked up, and in a bid to outflank them, the Clintons appeared in a joint interview on the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes. “I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said, the extreme humiliation of her situation registering as perhaps the tiniest flicker across her perfectly composed face. “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

Another decade, another TV interview, another consort to a nominee called on to defend her husband’s honour. After the release of Donald Trump’s grotesque “grab her by the pussy” comments from 2005, Melania headed out to do her wifely duty. But where the Clintons in 1992 had the benefit of uncertainty – the allegations against Bill were unproven – Melania is going up against the implacable fact of recorded evidence, and going up alone. Even leaving aside the boasts about sexual assault, which she’s at pains to discount, this still leave her talking about a tape of her husband declaring that he “tried to fuck” another woman when he was only newly married.

What Melania has to say in the circumstances sounds strained. How did she feel when she heard the recordings? “I was surprised, because [...] I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private,” she tells CNN's Anderson Cooper, giving the extraordinary impression that she’s never heard her husband sparring with shock-jock Howard Stern on the latter’s radio show, where he said this kind of thing all the time.

She minimises the comments as “boys talk” that he was “egged on” to make, then tries to dismiss women’s allegations that Trump behaves precisely as he claims to by ascribing their revelations to conspiracy – “This was all organized from the opposition.” (Shades here of Clinton’s now-regretted claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her own husband during the Lewinsky scandal.) “I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” she says, though this is a strangely contorted thing to say when her whole purpose in the interview is to convince the public that he shouldn’t be believed when he says he grabs pussies and kisses women without even waiting because when you’re a celebrity you can do that.

Melania’s speech to the Republican convention bore more than a passing resemblance to elements of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2008, but in fact Melania is working to a much, much older script for political wives: the one that says you will eat platefuls of your husband’s shit and smile about it if that’s what it takes to get him in power. It’s the role that Hillary had to take, the one that she bridled against so agonisingly through the cookie-competitions and the office affairs and, even in this election cycle, Trump’s gutter-level dig that “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Clinton soldiered through all that, in the process both remaking the office of First Lady and making her own career: “a lawyer, a law professor, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, a US senator, secretary of state. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime – more than Barack, more than Bill,” as Michelle Obama said in a speech last week. It was a speech that made it stirringly clear that the job of a First Lady is no longer to eat shit, as Obama launched into an eloquent and furious denunciation of Donald Trump.

A Trump win, said Obama, would “[send] a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated.” She’s right. From the moment Clinton was a contender for this election, this wasn’t merely a vote on who should lead the United States: it became a referendum on the role of women. From the measly insistences of Bernie Sanders voters that they’d love a woman president, just not the highly qualified woman actually on offer, to commentators’ meticulous fault-finding that reminds us a woman’s place is always in the wrong, she has had to constantly prove not only that she can do the job but that she has the right even to be considered for it.

Think back to her on that 60 Minutes sofa in 1992 saying she’s “not some little woman standing by her man.” Whatever else the Clinton marriage has been, it’s always been an alliance of two ambitious politicians. Melania Trump makes herself sound more like a nursemaid charged with a truculent child when she tells Cooper “sometimes say I have two boys at home, I have my young son and I have my husband.” Clinton has always worked for a world where being a woman doesn’t mean being part-nanny, part-grabbable pussy. Melania says she doesn’t want pity, but she will receive it in abundance. Her tragic apologetics belong to the past: the Clinton future is the one Michelle Obama showed us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.