Francesca Happe, a cognitive neuroscientist at King’s College London, is the 2011 winner of the Royal Society’s £30,000 Rosalind Franklin award, which recognises the contributions of women to science. On 26 October, she will give a lecture at the Royal Society to present a project on raising the profile of women in science using part of the prize money. She talks to Research Fortnight about her project, My Mum’s a Scientist.
Tell us about your project.
The idea is to produce a series of picture books for children aged about five to seven with the title My Mum’s a Scientist. So it’s My Mum’s a Scientist…Studying Stars or My Mum’s a Scientist…Digging Dinosaurs. The books will be built around particular, real-life women scientists in that area. It won’t be about the specific women but the back cover will say that the book is inspired by the work of a real scientist and say a little about them. At the end of each book there’ll be a page about the stuff my mum uses—so the sort of equipment or things that make that science possible. I expect to finish it in the summer of 2013.
How do you know the books will be successful in raising the profile of women in science? Have you tried out the idea on your own children?
Yes, I’ve discussed it with them. I’ll be trialling the books in the local school. A lot of science outreach is actually preaching to the converted, if you have a workshop or something, people bring kids who are already interested. If you work for schools you can reach all kids, as well as parents and teachers. We know that children’s prejudices about scientists—the idea that they are white, male and older—are set really early and are also shared by the teachers. I hope that having the books in schools will mean that teachers see it too. And since it’s not just about a woman scientist but it’s about “my mum”, it should reach boys as well as girls.
Science careers are often described as a ‘leaky pipeline’ with many women dropping out at the more senior levels. Do you agree?
Descriptively that’s obviously true, but we also don’t have as many women going into science as men. So there are problems all the way up. And some of the work done at King’s College London suggests that there aren’t big differences in the ability of girls and boys in science—they’re not using their brains differently. So it either seems to be about expectations and self-belief or the way that these courses are constructed.
Do you think that the lack of women role models in science is the main problem?
I think it’s part of the problem. I think girls still, very sadly, think that if they’re going to be doing science, it’s going to be biology or that type of science. In general, children don’t necessarily have an idea of the range of careers that are out there. So your expectation about what you might do is obviously going to be an important constraint.
Do you think diversity legislation does enough to promote the hiring and promotion of women in science careers?
There are clearly going to be unspoken prejudices, which I don’t think you can legislate about. What’s needed is probably more about profiles of people who make it; family-friendly working practices; and the expectation that men who are becoming fathers also have the right to work family-friendly hours, so it doesn’t always fall on the woman. We could have had this discussion five years ago and all those things would be true but the added factor now is the economy. We’re losing so many young scientists because postdoctoral fellowships have been slashed. And that’s going to hit women harder than men because women are going to want a stable job within a certain number of years. It’s really a tragedy for science.
Do you think women in the UK are less outspoken about their situation than their colleagues in other countries?
I think there is a psychological pressure to make it look effortless. And that—of course—is never true. I think there’s more and more support between women and some fantastic women scientists who have blogs do a good job highlighting what it’s really like juggling these things. But I also think that the general visibility of women is something that’s culturally a little bit different [in the UK]. When I’ve been to the States I’ve seen some really fantastic, “outspoken”, and tough women scientists who are cutting no slack at all. You don’t want to fall into the trap of having to be tough to get to the top but [there’s a message] that you don’t have to charm your way there—you can do it on sheer bloody ability. So I think there’s a cultural change needed.
What sacrifices have you had to make for your career?
Sleep. I think any parent who looks back thinks that before they had any children they had so much time but didn’t realise it. When my children where little I cut back on travelling for work, but that’s a minor factor. I’ve been very fortunate in that my parents have helped with my children, without that it would have been impossible. But I think mainly it’s sleep—I stay up and work as much as I can, as late as I can.