Inspiring Women

glass ceiling

It’s International Women’s Day tomorrow. Sadly, I’m not going to write about Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie or Emmeline Pankhurst. I’m writing about a very depressing University held event that I went to recently entitled “Inspiring Women”.

It was part of the University’s on-going initiative to encourage more female scientists to remain in academia given the Government’s concern that there is an attrition of women as you move from the bottom to top in academic science. It is not just in science that the gender gap is seen but across academic disciplines. Despite the proportion of female academic staff in the U.K. being close to equitable to males (around 45%), the proportion of female professors remains low ( a dismal 19.8% of all professors). It’s no surprise then that close to a third of men in academia are in the well paid academic positions (earning > 50K), whereas this figure is only at 17% for women (ECU, 2012). You don’t even want to know the figures for ethnic minority women.

There has been much interest in finding out the reasons for this drop out. The Ivory towers it would seem are just as hard to get into as the FTSE 100 Boardrooms. Why? Just like in FTSE 100 companies, where the foot soldiers are high in oestrogen; there are plenty of XX science PhD students. Of my peers, I know 3 talented women who completed science PhDs. One, graduated top of her year in Natural Science at Cambridge with the highly coveted and rarely achieved triple first, another graduated with a first class degree from University College London. The third studied her PhD at Cambridge University. Are these 3 now all Senior lecturers or Readers en route to the Professorial track? No. They have all left academia.  They are all married with children. They are all science teachers.  This is great news for teaching and I am sure they are fabulous teachers, but given that teaching was the available career option for women 50 years ago, why has nothing changed since then?

The event got off to a bad start as it was obvious from a quick look around that there was not one Y chromosome in the room. Clearly from the institution, and society’s point of view, encouraging women to succeed in their careers is much like breast-feeding. It’s “women’s business” and men need not get involved. Women’s failure to succeed in the workplace is clearly down to them and there is nothing men can do to help this situation. Proceedings took an ironic turn as the Chair that was introduced was an ex-colleague of mine who by chance I had bumped into a month earlier. I had last heard that she had become a senior lecturer, was the “right-hand” lady to a recently knighted Professor and was touted for great things. I was therefore surprised and saddened when she told me that she had resigned from her academic position at the University because of the unsatisfactory work-life balance and unsupportive institution in which she worked. One could only be somewhat sceptical then about her putting on a cheery face to “inspire” other women.

That aside, we were then treated to the career stories of 4 female professors. It was interesting to hear the struggles that my forebears had endured in order to achieve their current Professorial positions. One Professor was required to return to work a few weeks after giving birth and to prepare data for an international conference in the first few months following childbirth. She talked about taking her child with her to international conferences, and when she had difficulties with childcare, her child played under her desk at work.  All 4 professors were clearly remarkable and driven women and had made personal sacrifice to achieve their positions.

However, I was grossly disappointed in their summation of strategies for success. Even when I posed the question of what institutions could do to support women in academia, all 4 professors deferred to personal attributes required for success, emphasising the need for “dedication, passion, perseverance and strength of personality”. One went as far as to say that “If you want to make it in science, it has to be your single passion. You cannot for instance be passionate about science and architecture; it has to be science alone.” Another Professor talked about how finding a “niche subject”, “that nobody else was interested in” had helped her get to her position as she quickly became a leading expert.

Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I found these messages deeply depressing rather than “inspiring”. I felt that clearly unbeknownst to the organisers, it was exactly this mantra that has been putting off generations of female scientists.

I could totally understand that these were things women had to do 20 years ago in order to get ahead in a “man’s world”, but surely this does not apply to the here and now?  Are women still excluded from major and competitive fields of science such that they are required to seek out an uninteresting niche in order to succeed? Why should women not aspire to succeed in a major area of science? What if your “other passion” is family? Whilst I agree that to succeed in any walk of life passion, perseverance and determination are required, can it be that women are so much less “passionate, determined and persevering” than men…? I feel we need to get beyond talking about personal attributes and thinking about systemic, cultural and institutional solutions. We already know most women undervalue themselves anyway, so the emphasis on personal attributes just means that women drop out saying and believing “I’m not passionate or committed enough” when in actuality they have as much passion and commitment as their male colleagues but systems and culture are against them. How many male Professors were the main caretakers for their children or elderly relatives, might this not impact on commitment and dedication? Shouldn’t we be discussing why these roles can not be fulfilled by men when we talk about barriers to female success?

The event soon went from bad to worse for me as we went on to breakout tables to discuss issues more intimately. I had an unfortunate clash with a Professor who compared my juggling parenting, clinical work and academia with her juggling her career with her desire to exercise (as she had no children). Aside from exercise and sex both being choices, I cannot see any comparison between parenting and exercising. One is a responsibility; the other is a leisure time activity with some health benefits. In addition, insomuch as good parenting leads to well-functioning children and adults, there is a societal benefit as they will be the people paying for our pension and healthcare as we age, whereas exercise has only individual benefit. Whilst the comparison is ridiculous to me, it was shocking and demoralising to realise that this is the view of some intelligent women who have made it to the top. And it seems that I am not alone in my feelings as research shows that women do not just need “role models” and “mentors”; they need the right kind of role models and mentors and are “put off by successful female professors who are seen as aggressive and competitive, and are often childless”(The Guardian, 2012).

Other advice from senior women I have had included: “It’s hard, but we just have to get on with it”, which was comforting until I found out that she had put her own children into boarding school so that she could “get on with it”. Many others have offered support by saying “You’ll never regret time spent with your children”, which is supportive and appreciated, and yet for some reason I had a nagging “doomed” feeling about this kind of advice. For a while, I was unsure why, then I realised, it is these supportive words that perpetuate the myth of maternal responsibility which acts as the source of guilt that is eroding female careers. I can bet no one is encouraging my male colleagues to go part-time to spend “unregrettable” time with their children. Yet, why not?

I left the event after this, but I hear it was “a great success”. The majority twenty-something audience lapped it up with their wide-eyed enthusiasm, much like I would have done a decade ago. Little do they know about the choices they will have to make a few years down the line, oblivious to the fact that the majority of them will soon be lining up to teach secondary school science.

The problem of course is not unique to academia. My husband, a banker, hears women talk about this all the time in banking. What then, can be done to retain more women in science, academia, banking, law, politics? The right role-models? Gender sensitive leadership? Varying management styles? Emphasis on quality of work rather than quantity? An end to “presentee-ism”? Increased availability of part time senior positions? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it is beyond personal ambition, and will involve changing long established systems and cultures, in the workplace, in society, in families. Institutions need to stop thinking about ways to encourage women to change, and think about ways in which they can change to allow women to succeed. I know that “systems and cultures” may be too great a task to take on, but one might hope that the brilliant women who have already made it to the top, along with their male colleagues might be able to attempt to take this challenge on.

Now that to me; would be truly inspiring. 

ECU 2012:

Guardian 2012:


  1. Jonathan Jewell

    Interesting post… I was talking to a friend of mine (17 years) old, ‘newly devastated’ by not getting her place at university to study English.

    We talked about whether there were ways around this, there seemed few – it’s a tough (and highly statistically determined, in my view) process. After exploring all the likely ‘legitimate’ options, it occurred that her best option was in writing to the university to say that they had misread her application: she wasn’t applying for ENGlish she was applying for ENGineering.

    We laughed, but then didn’t.

    A stupid system for stupid times.

  2. Holan

    Yes, sadly women completely under represented in undergraduate engineering. Men however completely under represented in undergraduate psychology. The strange thing is there are lots of men at the professorial level in psychology, can we say that about women in engineering?

  3. motherfirst

    Hi. Very interesting post, glad you got in touch. Would love to hear more. It’s reminded me of a big battle at school when I was told I couldn’t do laboratory chemistry and advanced English. Also – Did you see Caitlin Moran’s column last week about not being token women in men’s programmes, but creating programmes for women by women with women?

    • Holan

      How interesting. Did you choose chemistry or English? I had the same decision between chemistry and art. I chose chemistry but still love art. Will check out Caitlin Moran’s column.

      • motherfirst

        I chose chemistry but stopped in adult life. I miss it though and look forward to helping my daughter in her homework, if I remember anything!

  4. hyperpolymath

    Yes, I studied psychology, then teaching, then children’s nursing, so I’ve had a rich experience of that side. Again, the ranks of teaching and nursing (especially) seem to disproportionally populated by men. Even stepping away from the wards and into the ‘best practices’ of the Royal Colleges, and unions, women populate the secretarial positions, men in director and board positions for the main. Necessarily then, the pay distribution mimics that with the women (in bulk) taking up the lower paid roles.

    However, I suppose my previous posting was more focused on the often forgotten glass floor too. I would rather though, to use a much less headline-grabbing (but I think far more useful analogy), talk about them as ‘differentially permeable’ ceilings and floors. Who and what is responsible at the interface between the top and bottom to me is a question that is never really given the attention it needs. Yes, there’s a lot of blame cast, and there’s a lot of interesting statistics to be had and some great descriptive case studies. But this is not something we’ve discovered yesterday.

    The glass ceiling notion was coined in the mid-80s, as a term to describe an ‘unbreakable barrier’. That’s great, but we know that for different people, at different times, place, etc. it is not unbreakable at all (that’s the point, after all?). It’s very difficult to actually make a change when you are talking about a group of limitless parameters, in environments of limitless parameters and expect real change for real people. We are not talking about a migration of a statistic from place to place, but the story of a person and the barriers they actually face, that actually stops them and the experience they have.

    I would like to see fewer stories in the Press about the problem and more about the solution, and the solution is – to me – to start finding the parameters and metrics relating to the ‘permeability’ of ‘the ceiling’, rather than re-runs of the ‘20% of women’, etc. divisions between those above and those below.

    • Holan

      Yes it is very sad. I read somewhere that the quickest way to increase the number of women in a profession was to decrease the pay…so sad, but I fear so true. Medical schools these days are taking more women than men and rather than seeing this as a hurrah for feminism, sadly I see it as men seeing that more money can be made in media and banking…

    • Holan

      Sorry for some reason I didn’t get to see the full text of your post earlier. Yes the ceiling is permeable, but frequently those women that permeate are childless. See my childcare post. Others are clearly supremely talented!

  5. john conner

    Never understood why having children is considered such a “women’s issue” in academia. The system is set up so that anyone who has children before they get tenure is stuffed, regardless of gender. They can’t move around any more so cease to be competitive. Statistically it is usually women who do this, but it’s not the fact that they are women that is stuffing them, it’s the fact they are having children early, as can equally finish the careers of men who do the same.

    • Holan

      I agree that family can prevent mobility which can affect both genders, but the task of childcare still for the majority of families at the moment is expected to fall on women. Prior to children my career probably matched my male counterparts. Since children, they continue to be able to be at work for long hours writing papers while I am at home reading stories and supervising homework. Yes, it is a choice, but if I was in the office late every day, I’m sure there would be many raised eyebrows whilst my colleagues are still considered great dads. We had kids at about the same age.

  6. hyperpolymath

    ‘Expected’ is an interesting word… I think there are three things there:

    1) I don’t think this is the main issue, or if it is, the evidence base needs developing – a lot of the studies that look at these issues have had the ‘child rearing’ effect cancelled out in their analysis and the problem still remains in these narrowed populations. So this isn’t a necessary limiter, and I think too much weight is attached to it. I’m not saying that it isn’t relevant, doesn’t happen, is insignificant, but if we get rid of the children-modifier, the issue is still alive-and-kicking. I think it is so obvious in many cases, it’s been a useful (to ‘The System’ status quo) distraction. Children are not the only structural or functional limitations undermining women’s

    2) Until lately the issue of women being expected to take the children has not only been an expectation but has been imposed (in the big three English speaking countries – America, Australia, the UK). It is only very recently that men have been ‘granted’ the opportunity to take on that burden (in the UK at least, which I understand to be the most progressive), with ‘parental leave’ now being ‘shareable’ between mothers and fathers. When I became a father, I got two weeks, the second thanks to a ‘generous’ employer. Men just could not take ‘maternity-equivalent’ leave. Many people still reject the idea that such a portion of parental leave can be allocated to a man who doesn’t have undergo the medically-recognised ‘feat of childbirth’. This, in any case, is not the only structural concern or functional limitation undermining the role of men in this.

    3) The notion of ‘expectation’, returning to my first point, is extremely dangerous a term, to my mind. Expectations are created by a society skewed in a particular direction. The reality is that we choose to honour that expectation set by society each and every time it happens. I do agree it is a default position, but I’m not sure how we can tell ourselves that we ‘default’ DUE TO expectation. If we take that line of thinking, we take a step toward Hobbe’s ‘state of nature’, and I think that it is incumbent on all individuals in ‘enlightened’ societies to really think about what we mean. What is the step-towards-but-one-after the expectation of that women take on the bulk of childcare? I would hazard the rape schedule?

    Interested in your thoughts, but I’ll shut up now 😉

  7. Holan

    Yes I agree with all your points. I suppose I meant society “expects”, which clearly I disagree with, see my childcare post. I will also post further on this issue, and yes there are more barriers to ascension than childcare, but that’s the one I have experienced most so far, although I imagine that had I overcome that obstacle there would have been more! Sorry to be so self centred in my discourse but its easier to speak of my own experiences and I hold my hands up that I am not presenting a comprehensive assessment on the issue, so it’s great that you bring your views and points!

  8. Jonathan Jewell

    Not at all, I love your posts (and a shame I don’t have time to go back over the rest of them…really.

    I don’t consider your postings self-centred, but I think I’ve felt some of them (because things are so ingrained) play a part in perpetuating myths. I do this too. On that Askabiologist website the other day, I saw this link (plugging the site, but picking something truly relevant):

    Everyone was astonished (well, David and me were at least!), and certainly I think that many of us have been repeating the same story about synchronisation for years to our students, and held it as axiomatic.

    In any case, you have comments from people like me (and others) to challenge (I hope) these axioms, and getting trapped in ‘paralysis-by-analysis’ would mean that there would be no blogs out there at all. So not self-centred.

    I love your blog. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing long responses to things that are posted when I have marking and essay writing to do.

    I don’t really have any suggestions for improvements, except ‘write more’!

  9. Alexk

    True – sadly true, unfortunately . Read this as I came out of a tough week at work during which I wished i had a female boss for a change (as feel she might have understood my need of staying home when my child had flu). But also because I realised, once again, how differently my male colleagues are treated -by my male boss: friendly but with distance, testosterone games but with respect, battle of the egos (implying some kind of parity). Women instead are often treated either in a compliant manner (meaning we are NOT equal but I am making an effort) or worse with a ‘can you help me sort this as I am too busy and I am sure, you as a woman can do it better’ manner. I know certain things are down to nature, like (of course) been able to handle many tasks at once and being more caring/nurturing/empathic than my male colleagues but this DOES NOT and should not make me different. I know differences in genders are there but can we do anything to change the attitude of managers towards female employees? Can ‘nature’ be tricked? We are not talking about merit here, as we have established that merit is gender-free, we are just talking in terms of attitude to a worthy female employee vs male employee :(… (Sorry about the rant sounding post)

    • Holan

      Thanks, I’m sure many people can empathise with what you are saying, myself included. I don’t think we need to “trick” nature though. Of course male and female brains are different, but I would argue that the overlap is substantial, i.e. the similarities outweigh the differences, and there is huge variation in the population, such that some women’s brains are more “masculine” than some men’s, and vice versa. Early environment being able to shape brain development still has a role to play and we as parents are in the lucky position of being able to shape our children’s brain to some extent, what I would call “nurturing nature”. If all parent’s did this to emphasize similarity rather than differences in gender roles, maybe we could make a more equal society for our children. As for our own current predicament, I think that we just have to carry on expressing our views (as you have done) so we are standing up to be counted, rather than suffering in silence. Thanks for commenting, I really appreciate everyone who comments on my posts!

  10. Greg Becker

    Great article and I see your point. Is their maybe a question along the lines of “how many cakes can you eat?” (Or can you get a double first in the real world – a family and career first so to speak…)

    I will certainly lower my chances of success or making it in cut-throat meritocracy-land… by having a family. I know that. I probably got the job I have (which will require lots of travelling) partly because I am unencumbered… That’s the way the world probably sees me. My current flexibility is prized (see the comment above on academics, flexibility, tenure and being stuffed)…

    Now, would I trade much of this in for a wife and kids and a bog-standard boring job closer to home? Probably! (I just hope I am not being used as the stat for the greedy male not letting women get ahead in finance – because that would be wrong!!! More accurately, I am a male getting ahead in finance while looking enviously at the simple life, and my flexibility is putting me at an advantage to those with a family…)

    Is it right to want to get a double first? I got no problem with those that want one, but question whether or not it is realistic for everyone… Yes some people shoot the lights out in every part of their life – or so it seems until they declare personal insolvency or separate. I wonder if that’s why some successful (in their job) parents are not successful parents (at home): for most, they can only do one thing really really well with all their passion.

    This reminds me of a quote I once heard, ‘success is not getting what you want, it is wanting what you get.’ If you are allowed to be good at one thing, would you choose your career over your family?

    [BTW, I have been astounded by the demographics of the comments on this article: I would have guessed it would have been dominated by females. I was also fascinated to see that I was not the only one to try and ‘abstract’ the problem, which removes gender, and replaces it with flexibility/meritocracy/number one passion/goal…]

  11. Holan

    Thanks for your comment and you raise a point that many people (including the childless Professor in the post) have also asked me. “Why do you feel a need to excel at everything? Why can’t you be happy with being a mediocre doctor but with a fantastic relationship with your kids?”, and I think it is an easy thing for people who have not experienced it to say. You don’t think your career means much until you face losing it against your will, because a job is not just a job. A job is a social network, an intellectual stimulant and an identity. It becomes part of who you see yourself as. Particularly if you have been ambitious, it is what you have built your self esteem and identity on for all of your adult life until parenthood.

    Many men experience the same when they retire, driving them to either carry on working (we still have 80 year old academics working in our department), or to depression and death! A staggering proportion of men die within a year of retirement. Identity is the key thing here, if you have always identified with yourself as being a mother, then it is no sweat, but if you identified yourself with your career, then it is hard. I believe that I and my cohort are the first generation of women who were brought up and schooled with work place equality as assumed, succeeding just as well as men up until childbirth. Previous generations of women just didn’t expect it, or expected it would be a struggle, therefore had to be tougher in their choices, but were at least prepared for them. I felt completely unprepared, and it came to me like a “slap in the face”, and I felt betrayed by my school and parents who made me believe equality was achievable.

    You may be happy (or think you would be happy, you never know how you will feel when it actually comes to action rather than words) to give up your career for kids, so being your wife would be great, but you need to pass on your attitude to other MEN, not women! Most women are already giving up their careers for their kids, its men that are not: so please by all means be vociferous in stressing your message, but directed at men. A survey of top executives in the U.S.A found that while 84% of men were married with children, only 49 percent of the women were (Mason, 2013). That statistic says it all, women find it hard to get to the top, women with children? Good luck.

    To some extent, I agree with Nigel Farage (no really!) women with children may be less productive (but largely because of time constraints and if you factor in the limited time, I believe them to be more productive!). However the solution is not to discriminate against women, it is to expect men also to be responsible domestically, and leave the trailblazing for the childless (of both genders).

    I don’t want two cakes – it would be greedy to eat two cakes, an effort to finish and I would feel sick after. But I would prefer to share half of each cake with my husband, than he have the chocolate and I the vanilla.

    • alexisebp

      Thank you for writing this post. As you know, I recently left off pursuing my academic career. This was for two reasons: first, that I was exhausted and demoralised from trying to balance maternity and academia; second, I felt that I wanted to be a practitioner-researcher and I felt that I was in the wrong practice. I am currently trying to make a jump from working in Language Education to Maternal Health Education, with a view to returning to research when my children are older. My specialist area is Intercultural Communication, so it will be relevant in both areas. Going back to the first reason, I think you make many excellent points about the way society coerces women into the primary care role, then placates them by saying how rewarding it must be. Yes, of course it is rewarding, but it does come with the trade off of wondering if you will be valued for anything else. I am sure I won’t regret the time I am spending with my kids, but I cannot say that I do not feel concerned about never living out my potential in other areas because I have made this choice. Certainly, the idea that raising children is comparable to a hobby is utterly ridiculous, as one cannot say that attending a gym would force this prospect onto a woman. I hope that I can build on my experiences and emerge phoenix-like from the ashes! I look forward to reading your further posts. Brilliant writing.

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