Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.


This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!


Thursday, 20 November 2014

Where are all the women? From the boardroom to the archives...

I didn't intend for this week to have an 'emancipation agenda' but I attended two lectures this week which filled me with a feminine fire by highlighting how women are still underrepresented in the upper tiers of scientific research - in both a historical and very modern day sense.

First up, 'TrowelBlazers: Tales of Pioneering Women Scientists and Activist Blogging', hosted by the Natural History Society. The speaker, Dr Tori Herridge, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, gave us an introduction to the 'TrowelBlazers' blog, which seeks to shed light on extraordinary women who had hitherto remained obscure, buried beneath the dust of history. It was one of the best kinds of lectures, where afterwards you feel that you have been on a long journey and that a corner of your mind has expanded somewhat with a new insight. She launched straight into the tale of Dorothea Bate (1878- 1951), a fossil mammal hunter who apparently marched into the natural history Museum aged only 19 and demanded a job! ( if only it was as simple nowadays...). Dr Herridge captivated us with tales of Dorothea's exploits in Crete, searching for dwarf elephant fossils. Far from being a lady of leisure indulging in a 'jolly fossil hunting trip', Dorothea was a committed collector, struggling against a harsh, unforgiving landscape ( without roads), bandits, political sanctions (she had to smuggle most of her fossils back home) and frustrating wild goose chases after being told misleading information. But she persevered and her efforts are now treasures in the Natural History Museum.

Which is where Dr Herridge comes in. As a palaeobiologst and mammoth expert aPplying modern techniques to these fossils, she found herself drawn in to the stories of the woman who collected them. Upon reading Bate's lively diaries,  Herridge began to form an intimate relationship with this pioneer from the past. But it became increasingly clear that Dorothea Bate was far from unusual - in fact, just a single node in a whole network of women geologists, archaeologists and palaeontologists. This raises a stark challenge to the traditional view that men were the workhorses of these fields, with their wives occasionally helping by dusting off their specimens! Indeed, the celebrated palaeontologist Mary Anning is always presented as 'the odd one out', as though she were the single woman fossil collector amongst an otherwise exclusively male club. Whilst excited to realis that this was NOT the case, Dr Herridge was disappointed that this wasn't more widely known. And so, the TrowelBlazers blog was born!  Just as the name suggests, this presents a gallery of feisty, trowel wielding women palaeontologists, archeologists and geologists determined to succeed in their fields and not prepared to let anything, ( and certianly not gender stereotypes) to stand in their way. The blog is now a comprehensive ( and growing!) gallery that makes for incredible reading. The full extent of Dorothea Bate's career, for example, just could not be made up and is worth checking out. See http://trowelblazers.com for more!

Meanwhile, it was also clear to Dr Herridge that, just as today, networks played an important part in fostering this community of women researchers. Dorothea Bate, for instance, spent some time digging at the Mt Carmel Excavations overseen by Dorothy Garrod, the first woman to be an Oxbridge professor. Garrod was instrumental in training a number of women who went on to become distinguished archeologists in their own right, such as Mary Kitson and Elizabeth Kitson Clark, thus leaving a legacy which extends beyond museum exhibits. To try and map these professional relationships, Dr Herridge showed us an impressive spider diagram - extraordinarily complicated and yet this was only a  'simplified' version! This brought home how scientists perform some of their most valuable work in training others to follow after them. But this often goes unrecognised; it is easy to measure a researcher on other merits (number of papers published, titles, positions on boards, funding garnered) but where is the data on the number of students a scientist nurtures? We are taught to dream of publishing a paper in Nature, with teaching often viewed as the 'necessary burden' of a position in academia. If teaching and training others was celebrated more (maybe through awards and honours?), perhaps this would change...

Dr Herridge also made the point that the evidence of a strong Victoria  female presence in these research fields debunks the notion that women are currently unrepresented at the highest tiers of Academia simply because they are still 'coming through the system' and that, now that more women are entering science, they will get to the top eventually. The TrowelBlazers blog shows clearly that women have already BEEN in science for long enough ... How much longer do we have to wait?!

This question of the 'Missing Women in Academia' was taken up again in a talk organised by the Women @ The University of Sheffield NET group. During her time as a leadership development professional in higher education, Dr Paula Burkinshaw, the invited speaker, started to question why so few women made the jump from middle and managerial roles to top positions of authority. This motivated her strongly enough to conduct a PhD focusing on the conspicuous lack of women vice chancellors. Although women now make up roughly 60% of higher education students and 45 % of academic staff, only 20% of vice chancellors are female. At the current rate of change, it will take at least SEVENTY YEARS for this gap to close ( and I was hoping to have finished most of my career by then!)

During her research, Dr Burkinshaw raised the question 'How DO we learn leadership?'. She suggested that, generally speaking, most of us do not wake up and 'decide' what sort of people we want to be, but 'slip into' the roles that best fit the community of practice which we belong to. We only notice this if there is some disconnect between ourselves and the community, such as a 'non- macho male' in a pub full of rugby players. And yet, how we fit ( or deviate from) these accepted roles helps us to forge an identity. For instance, would you describe yourself as 'quiet' if other people weren't more outgoing?

In terms of leadership, the dominant community is one of masculinity. Out of the 18 female vice chancellors that Dr Burkinshaw interviewed as part of her PhD, many had experienced pressure to conform and fit into this masculine ideal; it was only on becoming vice chancellor that they found their individual voice. Some even said that they felt pressure to 'put men at their ease' by reducing these differences and emulating the male leader stereotype, through power dressing, for instance. Many also identified that confidence and resilience were key traits for success and that having personal sponsorship from mentors was invaluable for their progress.

According to Dr Burkinshaw, catalytic change can only happen once women achieve a 'critical mass' of leadership roles. Until women make up 30% of top positions, their presence will continue to be seen as exceptional or 'the odd ones out' rather than normal practice. 'Like tends to breed like' Dr Burkinshaw explained; men are more successful at attracting personal sponsorship and support from senior mentors, allowing the masculine community to sustain itself. We need to expand the leadership gene pool!

Some might ask 'Why Bother?' Perhaps women simply don't want to be vice chancellors ( but just sit at home with the children...!)... To this, Dr Burkinshaw answered that it is only Democratic, for one thing, to have half the population represented at the highest level. Secondly, there is much evidence to show that organisations with more diversity of leadership are more successful and sustainable. Many Dr Birkinshaw's own interviewees reported that decision making processes were much more pleasant and constructive when women were present. 'It's hard to describe' as one responder said 'but very easy to feel'. For instance, men tend to be more aggressive and confident of what they say, whereas women soften the atmosphere by using words such as ''perhaps' and 'potentially'. There is a popular view, however, that all female groups dither too much, bicker and won't get anything done. In Dr Burkinshaw's experience, however, the very opposite was the case; women are more likely to roll their sleeves and get on with the job. I'm sure we can all think of examples from 'The Apprentice' and other reality TV shows...

This does present a bit of a conundrum though. Women are put off from taking up leadership roles because they feel that they have to fight against a prevailing culture of masculinity and that they would have to adopt a role that they are not comfortable with. But this culture WON'T change until a certain number of women establish themselves there. Perhaps this would then serve as a catalyst to bring others up the ranks. It seems that some will have to be prepared to move out of their comfort zone and enter 'the lions den' before it will get any easier. So if a colleague suggests you go for a promotion, do it! Perhaps one day, a woman can walk into a board room or a gathering of distinguished geologists and for it to seem nothing out of the ordinary...

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