Women have enabled me to succeed as a women in science. Men have too of course, but there have been a dominance of women in my life. I grew up in a household of successful women- my mother is a successful journalist. At 66 she continues to work independently and juggles this with her hectic social calendar and providing child care for her grandchildren 2 days a week. I am one of three sisters and the least academic of the three. Both my sisters passed the exam to attend the local grammar school. I didn’t go there as my parents don’t really believe in grammar schooling and I was the first child (experiment no. 1). My secondary education was at a comprehensive girl’s school. Yet my sisters and I attained exactly the same GCSE and A-Level results albeit in differing subjects (me in arts subjects, whilst they studied Maths, Latin and what not). One of my sisters is a lawyer (studied at University College London) and kayaker who occasional competes at a European level. My other sister got a first from Manchester and works as a hedge fund sales manager. As a family we are fairly driven but we also support and celebrate one another’s successes. This is not dissimilar to the colleagues I have met both in my clinical and academic career.
Entering speech and language therapy I continued to be surrounded by females. This can be a bit of an advantage. Having children and taking maternity leave is usual. Part time job roles are common. People often split job roles – even managerial posts. In comparison to both my sisters’ professions I feel that speech and language therapy is well equipped for families – it is expected that you may want to continue developing your career as a female, balancing both home and family life. Without part time positions there wouldn’t be a speech and language therapy workforce.
Before I went into research my speech and language therapy colleagues suggested that this career trajectory wouldn’t be anywhere near as accommodating as clinical work. People did and still do say to me that doing research or further study whilst having children must be far too difficult to juggle. I have actually found the opposite. Embarking on this academic trajectory has worked extremely well for my family. Although the NHS role I was in supported part time work, it is a rather inflexible working day that is structured around wards and patient appointments. 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. I tweak my hours to suit my needs- I work in the evenings, in the car while they do their various extracurricular activities and occasionally at weekends if I want to.
But it isn’t all about the working hours, it is also about the attitude. Remembering my name (even after working with them for years) was not often a priority for senior colleagues in the clinical setting. There is an unwritten hierarchy in medicine, and speech and language therapy are somewhere in the middle. Having entered the academic spheres of UCL I was fully prepared for a hierarchical and competitive environment where professional politics would impact on daily conversations. Where being a female with a family might be considered a lack of commitment and a burden. What I discovered was in complete contrast. I found people asked for, and valued my clinical knowledge and experience. I found that people were well aware of the pressures of family life, and how many times I was asked whether the meeting time or event would work for me.
That isn’t to say it is all that straight forward. Before I went into my fellowship interview 3 years ago my mother advised 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.
I am now a few years into my academic career, working part time (70%). I have two children, both at school, and a husband who often works late or starts early. I now recognise that my skills in my other life (the 30% +) are actually an asset to my academic life. As a parent I am pretty adept at juggling many things. If I drop a ball then I just need to pick it back up without pondering on it. I need to prioritise, plan and deliver. No time for procrastinating otherwise nothing will get done. Negotiating the ins and outs of ethics application forms, research and development teams and all the delicate negotiation required to set up a research study in the NHS is not dissimilar to applying for schools, navigating waiting lists and liaising with school or council offices.
In short I believe that being a women in science has allowed me to succeed. I have found I can juggle my studies, research and family life. I feel very lucky to be able to work in an area that allows me to do all those things (without feeling too guilty that I am not doing any of them too badly).
This week the Dementia Researcher website has also published as podcast which also looking at this topic – tune-in now Click Here
Anna Volkmer is a Speech and Language Therapist and NIHR Doctoral Research Fellow working in Language and Cognition, Department of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London. Anna is researching Speech and language therapy interventions in language led dementia.
You can follow Anna on Twitter Follow @volkmer_anna