International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Climbing the scientific ladder as a woman 

Professor Stephanie Schorge
Epilepsy Research UK Trustee
Professor of Translational Neuroscience
UCL School of Pharmacy

 

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Epilepsy Research UK is celebrating all the incredible women driving research into epilepsy. Epilepsy Research UK Trustee Stephanie Schorge is Professor of Translational Neuroscience at UCL school of pharmacy, where her work has focused on developing a portfolio of gene therapy approaches to treat severe drug-refractory epilepsy. In this blog, Professor Schorge discusses her journey climbing the scientific ladder as a woman.

Science is a field in transition. When I started my first research position after earning my PhD, my new supervisor (who was very much old school) made a big point of telling me that the tea towels needed to be cleaned.  I was raised in a household where one cleaned one’s own tea towels, irrespective of the gender assigned on one’s birth certificate. It took me WEEKS to work out that what he was really saying was that as the sole woman in the group, he expected I would naturally look after the tea towels, and probably some other things, which I managed to miss completely. I never did do anything to the tea towels.

Later, as I was clawing my way up the career ladder, I was thrilled to be invited as the only women to present at a symposium. Before it started, the five speakers were all standing around chatting when one of my colleagues pulled out a photo of his new baby and showed it to me. In fact, of all the speakers, I knew I was the only one without children. I am actually pretty uncomfortable around babies. Fortunately, I’ve had years of training and I know that no matter what squished little face I am shown, the ONLY possible response is: ‘Oh my goodness how adorable!’ No harm done, and, if not amused, I was at least bemused by my colleague’s inability to separate number of X chromosomes from enthusiasm for babies.

In my case, another part of fitting in as a woman climbing into more senior positions is to try to avoid any association with sex. I generally try to fly below the radar – if I am good, colleagues won’t really notice that I’m female. Scientists are fortunate in that we are largely judged for our work by people who have no idea what we look like.

Still, some things are a challenge. Social events are enormously valuable for building group bonds, but we haven’t quite gotten the kinks of having senior women in the mix worked out. One departmental Christmas dinner involved asking us all to belly dance. For senior male colleagues, this is ironic, humorous and humanising. For female senior academics, it is a disaster. A woman belly dancing just doesn’t say: competent and serious, and sadly I still have the uphill battle of being taken seriously (for most of my career I looked young – I’m one of the few people who looked forward to going grey). I can’t afford any additional association with silliness. I wish this was not a problem, as quite a lot of bonding activities seem charming for men, but are just demeaning for a woman. The wet t-shirt contest at the Christmas dinner a few years later is a case in point. However, I don’t want to be the one pouring cold water (see what I did there?) on people’s holiday fun, so I am in pursuit of the ideal bonding activity that makes women seem cool and masterful, and I’m happy for suggestions.

For my career, being female has been mostly harmless, and occasionally amusing. However, what I cannot imagine is: What it would be like if, as well as being a woman, I came from a minority background? That second layer of social second-guessing would no longer be amusing. It would be awful.

To be clear: at this point, with the enormous initiatives supporting women, I think that being female has even helped me at times. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t have been invited to that first symposium if the organisers didn’t need to diversify their panel with a few extra X chromosomes, so praising a dubious baby is a small price to pay for the opportunity to speak. If we can make such progress on supporting women, I hope we will learn approaches to effectively support people from different backgrounds as well.

-Professor Stephanie Schorge

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