Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science Day: A view from the Girly Side

This topic means a lot to me. It wasn’t by accident that when, in 2012, I chose my twitter handle: I chose Girlymicro/Girlymicrobiologist. It has felt to me, since I started as a working scientist in 2004, that it was considered unprofessional to bring my whole self to work: to like pink and purple, to bake, to talk about science fiction and gaming. It was the start of the journey that I am still on, to show that we are better scientists when we bring our whole selves to work. Anything that acts as a barrier to that not only harms us as individuals, but also harms what we can achieve as a collective.

The Road Is Long
With Many a Winding Turn
That Leads Us to Who Knows Where…

You may not know this, but I started out as a zoologist. I adored it, I loved it, but there were no jobs in it. My undergraduate dissertation was on the ‘Demographics of Witchcraft Accusations from 1625 to 1715’. You may think that has nothing to do with what I do now but you’d be wrong. Studying human and animal behaviour helps me all the time in understanding some of the group decision-making that occurs in healthcare. The hours of my life spent learning how to undertake statistical modelling was not wasted. What I didn’t study a lot of was microbiology: I did a single module of microbiology during my whole degree.

I then went on to study not microbiology but the physics of biological interactions at surfaces as an MRes. This was where I learnt some microbiology and developed a love of applied science. When I started as a trainee Clinical Scientist, I had so much less experience of microbiology than any of the other more traditional trainees. I once asked why they hired me and the wonderful Dr Margaret Sillis, who acted as my mentor, responded ‘We can teach you microbiology, it’s much harder to teach you how to think’. I still think about that and the transferable skills I picked up by studying other disciplines still come in use all the time.

This trend of not following the standard path has continued. It’s why I ended up in Infection Prevention and Control rather than microbiology. Although the traditional paths are in some ways easier, as you will be able to walk the path that others have walked before you, don’t be afraid to wander the path untrodden if you think that it will be a more satisfying journey for you as an individual. You will learn so much along the way and open up new roads for others to follow.

Making the Invisible Visible

During the last 10 years, one of the things I’ve consciously decided to do is to be visible. In 2015 I was asked if I would be filmed for a project that the Royal Society of Biology were organising called ‘Biology: Changing the World’. For some years I had been told, by my lovely (male) boss, that I shouldn’t do media and shouldn’t be seen as ‘courting attention’ as it a) detracted from the work, and b) people were looking to make a story out of you. Don’t get me wrong, there is some truth to this. It also results in a fair amount of negative feedback, often from female colleagues, about grandstanding and attention seeking. You know what it also does, however: it hopefully means that when a girl in 20 years time is asked the question I’m asked in this video about what female scientist inspired her, there is a chance she will have a name. Not that I think I’m going to be that person. I’m not going to win a Noble Prize or have a Wkipedia page. I do, even today, remember very clearly the male science undergraduate who came and spoke to my primary school class about his job, I can be THAT girl. The one that someone meets up close and personal and shows that normal everyday women can work in science. That the door is open to them. I can shine a light and make the career path visible to those who might follow. So, next time you are invited to do that piece of outreach, that radio interview, that blog and your mind questions your worth, ask: if not me, then who? I promise you that the next person will not be more qualified than you, more worthy than you, more appropriate than you. So please say yes.

The Importance of Valuing Difference

The above point brings me onto something a bit trickier. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a number of awards for myself and with my wonderful team and partners for undertaking STEM engagement. Doing this work requires energy and time, both of which are frequently given on weekends and evenings. Or, in the case of today’s blog, annual leave. I feel a moral obligation to do this work as well as it being an important part of maintaining my registration to practice. The interesting thing is that it is frequently not viewed this way in either my clinical or academic environments. It is not seen as ‘work’ and I have on more than one occasion been told that if I was serious about my career progression I needed to ‘do less of that nonsense’. Sadly this isn’t a unique situation for me, but is something that many women in science face, especially in academia. In these areas women spend a greater proportion of their time undertaking public engagement and utilising ‘soft skills’, which are not valued when it comes to promotion panels.

Over time I believe I have started to change perspectives, but it takes even more work and investment in time. I’ve taken on additional positions, such as Joint Trust Lead Healthcare Scientist. This position has enabled me to speak to senior leaders about the benefits of the work in order to raise awareness and to capture impact. By actively working with wonderful colleagues on projects nominated for awards, such as the Advancing Healthcare Award for Reach Out for Healthcare Science, with Dr Philippa May, and with Nicola Baldwin for the Antibiotic Guardian Awards and CSO Awards for Nosocomial, I have started to make inroads into changing the conversation. Awards aren’t everything, but they do support you in re-positioning what you are doing in a way that fits into the ‘traditional way’ success is captured.

Whilst I’m on this particular topic, I would also like to make one of the points I often respond with when talking to colleagues who aren’t so engaged in public engagement and outreach. The days of healthcare workers being considered to be ‘the authority’ are quite rightly coming to an end. Those of us working in healthcare need to be engaging and working collaboratively with patients and the public to co-create what the future of healthcare might be and should look like. We can’t begin this work until we get out there and start having conversations. Rather than being ‘nonsense’, this work is key to future of the NHS and, especially, Healthcare Science.

“Amplification” is Where It’s At

During the Obama administration, despite it’s progressive nature, women found it hard to get their voices heard.

We’ve all been there. The meetings in which you make a comment or a response and you’re ignored, only for a man in the room to repeat the comment and have everyone react as if it is the first time they’ve heard it. As women in science, we are often the only women in the room and so making ourselves heard can be difficult.

The women in the Obama administration came up with an “amplification” strategy, where women in meetings repeated each other’s ideas as well as deliberately crediting the women who came up with them.

I work with some amazing women in Healthcare Science (Jane Freeman, Anna Barnes, Ruth Thomsen, Kerrie Davies and so many more) who do an excellent job of this amplification. I’d like to think that we all have a definite and deliberate attitude of amplifying each others voices and not falling into the trap (that happens way too often) of competing with each other. Be deliberate when you are in spaces with other women who may not be heard, actively listen and repeat. Focus on those moments that could make a difference and ensure that everyone in the room is heard. It requires active effort, but it definitely changes the course of conversations.

So how our male colleagues can help? This is definitely one of those areas. There are often not the women in the room to do this and so having allies who are happy to support in the same way is a definite help.

Change the View for One That is More Pleasing

One day the super-inspirational Dr Lena Ciric and I sat down over a cup of coffee and engaged in one of our regular consolation sessions. This was because, yet again, I had written a grant that had been successfully funded but it didn’t have my name on it. It had the name of one of my male professors. Lena had experienced similar things over the years and also the reviewers’ response of ‘not enough experience’ as a result of grant after grant that didn’t credit us. This cup of coffee was different: it was during this session we decided that, if we couldn’t change the playing field, we could change the view.

What do I mean by this? Academically, we were applying for funding within the clinical microbiology environment. A landscape that was already filled with vastly experienced and (mostly) older male medics. We were not going to succeed in breaking through the glass ceiling by applying within this space. Life lesson: we needed to find another space. So we very deliberately looked across the different funders to see where there was a landscape that wasn’t crowded with people like us and where we could constructively add something. We found it. We ended up putting in our first million pound grant to the EPSRC, an engineering research council who were looking to fund healthcare research and were not getting applications from researchers with enough clinical experience. We got the grant first time! Now we had a million pound grant AND we had the track record that means we can not only continue to apply in the new landscape but that also enables us to apply in the old arena.

Sometimes, if you continue to bang your fist against a closed door all you will get is a bloody fist. In these circumstances you need to take a step back and review whether there is another way to get to where you want to be. If there is, do it, you may not only succeed in your original goal but learn some other valuable skills along the way.

Finally, I wanted to finish with the above image of Shonda Rhimes. I am as guilty as the next person of talking about how lucky and fortunate I am, and it is true. That said, own your success: you’ve earned it, you’ve put in the hours, you’ve sacrificed, you’ve made it happen whilst balancing families, health issues and all kinds of other demands.

Be the badass I know you are!

All views in this blog are my own

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