As part of Journal of Ecology’s continued International Women’s Day celebrations Associate Editor Honor Prentice has done a Q&A for the our blog. As expected lots of brilliance below.
Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology
Honor Prentice’s current research centres on the mechanisms involved in the maintenance or loss of biodiversity on different scales – from genes and populations to species and landscapes. Much of her work focuses on semi-natural grassland ecosystems and the old cultural landscape on the Baltic island of Öland. She also has a long-standing interest in patterns of differentiation, evolution and systematics within the genus Silene
What made you want to pursue a career in science?
I’ve always been interested in natural history: one of my earliest memories is going along the lane with my grandmother to pick the first celandines. As a child, I made endless lists of birds and plants (and confess that I still enjoy making a good list). I couldn’t decide between English and Biology at school, and it wasn’t until the end of my second undergraduate year at Cambridge that we had a series of field courses and lectures that unexpectedly revealed that academic biology could also include “real” biology.
I definitely never thought in terms of pursuing a career in science. It would have been presumptuous to imagine that I was aiming for something that was so obviously out of my league. I had zero self-confidence and just pushed myself from one short-term goal to the next. But I was obstinate. The setbacks and problems that I experienced as a PhD student and as a young postdoc somehow made me even more stubborn. I needed to convince myself (not easy), as well as my family and peers, that I could get a PhD. Then I felt driven to deal with the next challenge, and the next.
Were there any female scientists who inspired you?
Simple answer. “No”. The very few women scientists that one glimpsed from afar as an undergraduate were impossibly remote. I never even considered the possibility that I might seek support from other women scientists! Now, many years later, I’m inspired and impressed by lots of female scientists. Things have got better.
Why do women abandon ship?
Science is a challenging profession … for both sexes. A lot of the obstacles that are recognized as being a problem for women are also just as much a problem for men. The adage about “hungry wolves” (beloved of research councils and politicians) always enrages me. We all like to measure ourselves against others in our field and to push ourselves to do better. But I would like to see the evidence that “good” science is best promoted by keeping workers on short-term contracts and making them compete for every krona of research funding.
Sweden has solved many of the problems that hold back women academics in other countries. There is good child-care provision. Longer periods of parental leave (for men as well as women) are the norm, and the periods of leave are taken into consideration when job applications are evaluated. Sweden is relatively well along the road to gender-equality … but not that well along. The ratios look fine until the postdoc level, and then the wastage begins. The bottleneck is recognized and efforts are being made (albeit slowly) to open up junior academic positions that give women a chance to get established. Thirty years ago, the situation was definitely better in Sweden than in Britain. Had I stayed in Britain, there is little chance that I would still be a scientist.
The support that I received within the academic system in Britain at the beginning of my career was non-existent. And I also experienced some really crass and openly-expressed discrimination when applying for the few jobs that were available in Britain in the late seventies. It didn’t exactly help when friends and relatives asked me, as I lurched to and fro across Europe from one postdoc to the next, “when are you going to get a proper job?”.
The support that has been helpful has come from colleagues that I trust and respect and who have given me the chance to rant on about my problems. It’s important to be able to moan and rant in confidence!
As I said, the Swedish system is making some progress with gender equality in science and there are some marvellous mentoring programmes available for young and mid-career women. However, there is a risk that younger women are over-exploited when it comes to, for example, committee-work and evaluations … situations where the Swedish rules demand, at worst, a 60:40 gender ratio. It took me a long time to realize that being one of the 40% female representatives on a committee, at a time when the actual proportion of available women in the available pool was around 10%, meant that I was bolstering the system rather more than was reasonable! These kinds of problems get overlooked if gender equality is simply viewed in terms of head-counts.
Mentoring programmes are brilliant! They are a real contribution to the empowerment of young scientists. I love being a mentor … and I would have loved to have had an early-career mentor myself. Some years ago, our Dean was trying to persuade me to do my duty on yet another committee. I was bogged down with administration, grant applications, long-distance commuting and a family tragedy. I had an extremely short fuse and totally lost my cool. “I want a mentor!”. “Okaaay” … says the Dean. “I’ll see what I can do” (what a star!). And he conjured up the most amazing and wise lady who categorically refused to be my mentor but said that she would be delighted to have regular conversations with me. Now that she’s retired, we talk mainly about gardening but our conversations are still very important to me. As the number of women in the system gradually grows, we can increasingly gather support from our own networks … but some late-career support for women would also be appreciated.
Why is there still a problem?
This is definitely not the first time I’ve been asked to reflect about gender equality in science. Have my reflections become better structured or more penetrating over time? Alas, no. I still have difficulty understanding why there is still a problem and exactly where the problem lies. The problem has elusive depths that involve “informal structures”. For example, the inertia of the immense network of brotherhood that underlies the academic system. I’m absolutely not talking about a sexist maffia that is bristling with ill-will towards women. It’s just that we‘ve inherited our academic system from a time when scientists were men. If your research supervisor is a man, you start off by acquiring your supervisor’s network of male colleagues. You then link into their networks … and so on. Most senior women scientists have had male supervisors, so we also started off with a male-biased network. Ask colleagues (male and female, graduate students or seniors) to suggest an outstanding scientist who could be invited to give a seminar, and 90% of the proposed names will be men. Ask again, but allow only suggestions for women speakers. Then the response to the suggested names is typically “… yes, wow, she’s really good … why didn’t I think of her? “. We need to get better at mentally accessing alternative networks.
Advice to early career researchers …
Among the biologists I know, the people who seem to survive best in the academic system are those who do research because they want to know what is going on in nature and are motivated by a curiosity about how it all works. These people are happy and professionally fulfilled as long as they have some funding and enough time to do active research. The people who get disappointed and discouraged are often the ones who were originally motivated by career goals. Without a real passion for biology, it’s maybe less easy to keep alive an interest in research and to use research as a “reward” when the going gets tough and one’s career isn´t as stellar as one had hoped.
Be certain that you really want to do research and that you are strongly-motivated. You need to be pretty stubborn as well! Otherwise, follow your own moral codes and convictions: don’t let other people or the system force you into behaving in a way that doesn’t feel right for you. Your own integrity is important. And you CAN change the system! You may not be able to change it much, but every little helps.
Looking back …
I’m so glad that I was stubborn enough, and lucky enough, to be able to become a scientist. Being a biologist has made me both supremely happy and very unhappy … and I expect it to continue to do so. The natural world is totally amazing and we’ve got a tough job ahead of us.
Honor Prentice, Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology