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