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"We need people's attitudes around working mothers to change"

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. 

First, Professor Ann John, who leads on our Adolescent Data Platform (ADP). The ADP enables scientists to find answers to questions about young people’s mental health quicker. It pools together thousands of pieces of data collected from hospitals, GP clinics and schools about young people, creating huge potential for new insights.

Ann is one of the few professors in the UK who is a woman of colour. The statistics are shocking: women make up only 20% of professorial staff, despite making up 47% of academic positions, and white applicants are three times as likely to be successful in securing a professorial role as their BME colleagues. Ann talks about why we need to change attitudes around working mothers to see progress, the importance of having role models in science and why women such as author Zadie Smith inspire her. 

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

Yes I do. I think we live in a society where women in particular are made to feel guilty about focusing on their career if they have children, there’s a view that if mum’s at work, the kids aren’t getting enough attention. But I think if childcare is good and parents are able to spend quality time with their children then they’ll be fine.

There are little assumptions that any women who works in a male-dominated environment will experience. Consultants would often assume I was going to be a GP. Or, I remember when I’d just started a new job a man came in who I didn’t know and said, I used to work for a female Indian consultant, and I’m thinking – what does this have to do with me? I grew up in North London? And he said ‘she was so subservient to her husband that she wouldn’t let me make her tea or coffee’.

It’s very difficult for young women just starting out to be able to speak up and say – that’s not okay. That’s where I think women in senior positions, like myself, can make a big difference. I’m hoping the Me Too campaign is a step-change, because more women and men will be having those conversations and there’ll be less confusion around what’s acceptable in the workplace.

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

There are systems in place, not many of them very obvious, which mean that women aren’t getting the same opportunities as men – unless you support women at the height of their caring responsibilities when they’re developing their careers, they’ll never make it into that 13%. These kinds of statistics really shock me. I’m one of about 350 female professors who is from a black ethnic minority* – across all academia, that’s 18,000 professors across the UK. It’s shocking and we need to do more to change it. 

It’s also harder for women, and particularly for women working in labs, because there’s a lack of role models. It’s very difficult when you’re starting out if there’s no women who have gone before you to show that it’s possible to manage being a researcher and a mother and how best to do that. 

People often don’t think that role models make much of a difference, I used to be one of them – but since becoming a Professor and the conversations I’ve had, I think they do. I remember being part of a team winning an award at a Christmas Ball for our Athena Swan work (which promotes equality in academia) and having to stand up on stage in front of lots of students. Afterwards, all these female medical students came up to me and told me about their experiences of being a woman in medicine and how they found it inspiring to see me up on stage. That was an eye-opener to me. I’m glad I went up on stage. 

As well as role models, what can we do to tackle some of these issues and get more women into science?

We need people’s attitudes around working mothers to change, to be less politicised, and we need employers to be more understanding. I’ve had some amazing supervisors and managers throughout my career who have understood that there are times when my children need me to be more present. In the long run, I think that flexibility paid off for them and for me. 

And perhaps it involves a loss, for mothers and fathers – for mothers to share that role of the primary caregiver – and if fathers are being hands-on, they may lose some of the speed of their career progression. We need to embrace this loss on both sides rather than assuming the woman will take it all on the career side and men all on the care-giving side.

I think scientists in particular like to think they’re really objective, and I know if you spoke to professors they’d say they only employ people based on meritocracy, but I think we all have unconscious biases. We don’t interact with the world objectively, we bring all sorts of things about ourselves to work. And I think even without meaning to, we can make people feel excluded or even subtlety overlook them or not give them the opportunities we give to others. Maybe if people were more conscious about their own biases then we could address them and start to find a more equal world.

What is your biggest achievement in your career so far?

Being awarded funding from the MRC and MQ is definitely up there – and I’m not just saying that for this blog! The funding gives me a real opportunity to take my research on young people a huge step further. 

As a former GP, I think my achievements come from contributing to a conversation about helping young people to come to talk. It can be difficult for professionals (clinical or not) to ask questions like: ‘are you having suicidal thoughts?’ but it’s so important to ask them without being judgemental. I hope I’ve made a difference to those conversations.

Do you have any female role models? 

I come from quite an unusual line of women, my mother was born in India and her mother was an English teacher. For my grandmother’s generation it was almost unheard of to be a woman with a job. My mum worked throughout my childhood, I think seeing these women working and being both amazing mothers and holding down great careers, that’s really inspired me. 

I find women leading thoughtful, intellectual lives really inspiring. Like the writer Zadie Smith– I love her books, when I read White Teeth I really connected with its themes, partly through my North London upbringing, she has such an intelligent, insightful way of looking at the world.

*Women of African, Asian or Caribbean origin and descent

Last updated: 8 March 2018

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