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"Female scientists face both implicit and explicit barriers compared to male scientists"

It’s International Women’s Day – a time to celebrate the fantastic achievements of women worldwide.

Today, we’re taking this opportunity to applaud female scientists smashing glass ceilings around the world and making history. Three of these scientists are Professor Ann John, Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen and Dr Valeria Mondelli who are all dedicated to transforming mental health in young people.  In this three-part blog series we speak to each of them about being a woman in science and how we can break down barriers holding women back. 

In the second instalment, we speak to Anne-Laura who is leading on our HOPES project, which aims to create a model that can predict who is at risk of suicide. This ground-breaking project bring together medical, psychological and social data with brain scans of people who have suicidal thoughts to reveal factors that could be someone at risk. We spoke to her about her achievements, tackling sexism and which women in science she looks up to.

Why did you get into mental health research?

During my Master’s, I did a research project at Harvard examining adult memory of childhood maltreatment. This project made me aware of the staggering prevalence of these experiences, and its persistent negative impact on mental health in later life. I became passionate about wanting to better understand the pathways through which early experiences lead to mental health problems and to mental health resilience, in order to ultimately help reduce mental health problems in those with a history of childhood maltreatment.

What is your biggest achievement in your career so far?

There are a couple of things that I’m very proud of in terms of my research: one is showing that verbal abuse and/or emotional neglect in early life is associated with long-term effects on the brain that are thought to make individuals vulnerable to develop mental illness. Another is showing the importance of adolescent family and friendship support to help increase resilience. 

But in terms of actual impact, I think my biggest achievement is changing the maternity leave policy of the largest scientific funding body in the Netherlands (NWO). I was on a fellowship when I was expecting my daughter, now 2 years old, and I found out that they didn’t fund paid maternity leave for their fellows. After hearing about two former fellows who had the same experience, we set up an online petition. The NWO changed their policy and now fund 16 weeks paid maternity leave for their fellows – I think our efforts have had a direct impact on reducing the ‘leaky pipeline’ for academic new parents.

Do you think female scientists face any unique challenges compared to their male colleagues because of their gender? 

I do not think that, I know this. There is ample scientific evidence showing that female scientists face both implicit and explicit barriers when compared to male scientists. Despite working equally hard and having equal ability, female scientists are rated lower in terms of their scientific ability, their work is cited less often, they receive lower evaluation grades from students, and are less often invited as keynote speaker, panel member, or as collaborator on scientific grant applications and projects. These barriers are not specific to females, and also apply to minority groups (LGBTQI, disability and differential social or ethnic backgrounds), and these barriers are clearly making it more difficult to excel at, and get the recognition for, the scientific work these individuals do.

Only 13% of the overall UK STEM workforce is female, why do you think this is? 

It is clear that science is harder for females for the reasons I mentioned before. In addition to these barriers at work, women are still bearing the brunt of the household and caring responsibilities. And, because scientists are judged on the number of articles we publish and the grants we receive, caregivers often have to work long evenings and at the weekends in order to keep up with their colleagues. Together with the fact that job security is very low (most scientists work on temporary contracts), the fact that we have low salaries compared to peers with the same education, and the funding rates for grants are around 5%, this high stress long working hour environment is not well suited for everyone, and especially tough for caregivers who are often women.

What do you think we can do ensure more women are developing careers in science?

We need to address the issues head on, by targeting implicit biases about women (and minorities), for instance, by showcasing our brilliant female scientists in the media. We also need to call people out on their implicit biases in a nice and gentle way, as most people are unaware that they have them, I have them too.

I’d like to see the research environment changed to make it more supportive for caregivers and minority groups. One really great example of such support is the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship that specifically allows for flexible and part-time working, maternity and caregivers leave, and sabbaticals for their fellows. Another great example is the University of Cambridge returning carers scheme, that caregivers can apply for in order to help them pay for extra support, both in the lab, and outside, for instance by providing funding that allows scientists to bring their children to scientific conferences. 

Who are your female role models?

There are so many role models, my number one role model was my grandmother who was a very strong and independent lady and whom helped and encouraged me to pursue a scientific career. Scientific role models are my former and current mentors Bernet Elzinga, Eveline Crone, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, and Essi Viding, all world-leading experts in their fields who provide supportive, academically excellent and flexible research environments for their students. They also taught me that we all have our personal struggles with family life, mental health, career, and that the way you deal with those struggles, and not the fact that you have or have had them, is most important. 

What would you say to young women considering a career in mental health research? 

Go for it! Mental health research is crucially important, mental health problems form a heavy burden on society, both in terms of family life but also in terms of costs;  as depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and suicide the second leading cause of death in young people.  If we find ways improve mental health, as researchers we can make a real difference to the lives of people all around the world. 

Last updated: 8 March 2018

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