Careers, Guest blog

Dear Scientist… celebrating Ada Lovelace Day 2021

Blog from Dr Yvonne Couch

Reading Time: 9 minutes

This post was originally called Women in STEM but I’ve decided I don’t like that. It’s like saying ‘female teacher’ or ‘female comedian’. What does it matter? It should just be about the job. But sadly too often it isn’t.

This isn’t going to be a moan. This is going to be an outline of the state of play. The state-of-the art section in a grant, if you will. Where I get to highlight the amazing work women are doing in STEM at the same time as highlighting the problems they still face.

Let’s start all the way back with Socrates. The ancient Greek philosopher was meritocratic in nature, believing that roles in a society should be allocated based on virtue, not on gender or social standing. This attitude should have meant that women occupied half of all positions of power. But for some reason this was the one bit of teaching that went awry from both his successors, Plato and Aristotle, who believed that women were inferior to men and their role was to essentially ‘play house’. Cooking, babies, etc.

In 1844 Ada Lovelace commented to a friend Woronzow Greig about her desire to create a mathematical model for how the brain gives rise to thoughts and nerves to feelings (“a calculus of the nervous system”)

Gerda Lerner, an author and expert on the subject, believes this is the start of the patriarchy. And to some degree, we’re still stuck there. I have female friends with children who say there is this assumption that if their children are sick, they are the ones who should go home and care for them. There is recent data, recent, that says women still spend 30-50% more time on housework than men. It’s 2021 guys, I know vacuuming is dull but…seriously?

So…we’re definitely not there yet. But who has inspired us on the way to where we are, and how do we get to the ideal meritocratic society Socrates was hoping for?

If you Google ‘historical women in science’ you get so many different lists. Pretty much all of them have Marie Curie on them, and Ada Lovelace, but if you go deeper you start to discover others with equally amazing stories.

Katherine Johnson was brought to the fore in Hidden Figures, epitomising the diligent and hard-working women who are often unrewarded and unrecognized. Sophia Jex-Blake is less well-known and represents the opposite end of the spectrum, women who are litigious and outspoken about their rights. So determined was she to attend medical school in the mid-1800s that she sued people to get in and didn’t technically graduate from the first school she attended until over 100 years after she died.

And I will be forever grateful to these women. Their struggles allowed me to get where I am today. Where we are today. They allowed me to go to University. To develop political opinions and vote. To get a PhD and work in academic research. And now I’m here it’s other women who help and inspire me to stay.

Marian Wright Edelman said ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and to some degree we’ve definitely got slightly beyond that, but for me a better phrase would be ‘you can’t be what you haven’t experienced’. You need to have worked under or with an inspirational woman. Someone who picks up those around her and carries them along. Someone who credits the achievements of their juniors. Someone who says we’re all in this together, let’s work as a team rather than trying to compete. You need to have a role model in every sense of the word. Not someone who has stomped on everyone on her way to the top.

Because our labs are not just full of old white men anymore. We have all races and all genders. Perhaps not represented to the degree they all should be, but progress has been made. Women run labs and departments and Universities. But the numbers are not where they might be. Only 20% of professors at UK Universities are women. If we look at statistics from a major UK funder we can see that fellowship applications seem to be evenly balanced between the genders but for research and programme grants, those applied for at the stage where researchers are becoming more established, the balance is skewed in favour of male applicants, with one table I looked at saying 74% of programme grants awarded were given to men.

And this table could be considered the be all and end all. The straw that broke the camels back. But actually, there’s a column of figures to the left of the ‘successful applications’ which is potentially more interesting. It is entitled ‘number of applications’. For the programme grants the numbers are even more skewed than the success rates. Less than 20% of applications for large programme grants were by women. If you’re a math whizz you’ll see that based on those numbers actually women who do apply seem to be slightly more successful than men who apply. But broadly they’re not applying.

And I couldn’t find any decent academic literature on this. Don’t get me wrong there is lots of really good literature on the lack of women in tenured academic positions but none of them seem to understand why this is the case. The broad consensus seems to be that at some point women just go ‘yep, this isn’t really for me’. The hours, the lack of stability, the politics all clash with their want for a decent living, decent family time and a decent life and so they jump ship. If I was being very politically incorrect, I could say the reason we have a gender gap at the professorial level is simply because men are more pig-headed than women.

But actually there’s a whole ton of subtle bias which creeps in insidiously. So subtle you probably haven’t noticed that you’re guilty of perpetuating it. So am I.

Ada Twist, Scientist is a children’s is written by Andrea Beaty. The story was well received and praised for encouraging children, especially girls, to develop an interest in STEM – so popular it’s just been launched as a Netflix series.

I’ll ‘fess up first and then you can join in and do some introspecting. Whenever I get reviews back on a grant or a paper and I’m discussing them with someone I don’t say reviewer 2, I don’t say they, I don’t say the reviewer…I say he. Not all the time but a lot of the time. ‘He didn’t like this…’ or ‘He wants us to do a bunch of extra experiments’. I know women are scientists, I am one. So why am I doing this?

If you’re an angelic being and you’re not doing this then the internet is, and I will allow you to test this theory for yourself. Hit up Google images this time and try searching for ‘cartoon scientist’. Of the first 20 images that are a single figure, rather than a group, only three are women. And all of the 17 men depicted are white and old. Apparently, you can only be a scientist if you look like Einstein.

Beyond these subtle biases which hover in the background, there is actual literature on both male and female writing and leadership styles which potentially point towards a lack of success. In his paper on writing styles and blinded review Julian Kolev points out that women are more likely to use narrow, field specific terms whereas men will use broader, big-picture words. This results in 16% lower success rate for female applicants. More recent work by Chatterjee and Werner demonstrated that, at least in medicine, female first and senior authors are cited around 30% less than male authors in the same field. So once we apply we’re less likely to be successful because we’re using the wrong words, and when we do apply we won’t get cited anyway. Sigh.

Let’s go back to my new, non-rhyming catch phraseyou can’t be what you can’t experience for some good news on leadership styles. In a 2017 paper on leadership and gender Cătălina Radu states that ‘traditionally, the most appreciated leadership characteristics were masculine in their nature’. These are things like being assertive and dominant, being task-oriented and individualistic. But their research has demonstrated that these do not necessarily contribute to leadership efficacy. That traits like empowerment and collaboration were much more effective. Fortune 500 companies with female leaders showing these traits were much more successful than their male equivalents.

And we get this into academia by being the example. We do not play the game the way they want it to be played, we play it fairly. We change the game so that those who play it after have a better pitch. And we need to keep trying to do that because otherwise the pitch continues to be uneven. Enjoying my mixed sports metaphor? Rink and colleagues, in a study on gender and succession showed that male leaders rated potential successors higher when they had a greater interpersonal fit with them. An academic paper demonstrating that the ‘boys club’ is actually a thing. More importantly they showed that female leaders were not biased by perceptions of fit.  But even if that is the case there is still work out there that demonstrates simply that the University environment isn’t designed for women. There’s a great paper by Kelly, McCann and Porter which studied tenure-track women at a number of American Universities and concluded that the academic system wasn’t designed for them. They felt that they were never good enough for their senior male colleagues and they didn’t seem to suffer enough for the few senior females present.

So instead of suffering I try and actively seek out female role models who I admire. I find the one who gives a shout out to their post-doc on Twitter just for being great. I find the one who told me that if ever I hear someone telling a sexist joke ask them to swap out the gender for race and see how funny they think it is. I find the one who supports her post-doc with coaching courses. I find the one who says ‘actually, this is hard, let me help you’.

To stand on the shoulders of Katherine Johnson, Sarah Jex-Blake, Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie we need to support each other. As Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, 14th president of the Philippines said The power of one, if fearless and focused, is formidable, but the power of many working together is better’.

Dr Yvonne Couch


Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.



Which women have inspired you? Leave a reply below, and don’t forget to hit the like button if you enjoyed this blog Red Heart on Microsoft Windows 11

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