Authors: Sharon Salt, Editor
International Women’s Day (8 March) marks an annual call-to-action to press forward and progress gender parity. The campaign has gained increasing traction in recent years, with this year’s theme focusing on gender balance: #BalanceForBetter.
In this interview, we speak with Selina Wray, Alzheimer’s Research UK Senior Fellow and Group Leader at the University College London Queen Square Institute of Neurology (UK), who provides her opinion on what the biggest challenges women face when wanting to take on leadership roles. Selina also discusses what more could be done to promote gender equality in science, including how we might involve more males in gender inequality discussions.
Can you talk us through your typical (or not so typical) working day?
I usually arrive into the office around 8:00 AM and catch up on e-mails over coffee, and then set my to do list for the day. Each day is slightly different, but typically I’ll have 1-2-1 meetings with people from my lab to catch up on their work, troubleshoot any problems and plan experiments for the weeks ahead. The rest of the day might involve attending internal and external seminars, writing and/or reviewing papers and grants. I also do a lot of public engagement work, helping to raise awareness of dementia and the importance of research, so in addition to my day job I’m often involved in evening events such as Pint of Science.
What would you say are the biggest challenges women face when wanting to take on leadership roles?
Many leadership committees are male dominated and I think one of the challenges is access to those leadership roles – for example, membership of committees may require recommendation or nomination, and people will look to their existing networks rather than consider how to use that as an opportunity to increase diversity. I also think there is a tendency for women to get pushed into taking on more pastoral roles, propagating the stereotype that women should lead on caring initiatives and overlooking them for scientific leadership. University College London offers leadership training, which is hugely useful in developing mechanisms to navigate the challenges of academia.
Have you ever in your career to date felt that you were at a disadvantage owing to your gender?
I’ve been really fortunate throughout my career to have mentors – male and female – who have provided me with access to opportunity. However, I’ve definitely felt undermined at times – for example, people assuming that I must be a post-doc rather than a group leader, and people referring to projects I’ve led on as coming from my mentor’s lab, even though I’m senior author on the paper!
How important do you think it is for women to be equally represented on editorial boards and at conferences and events?
Representation is incredibly important. If PhD students and junior researchers attend high profile conferences and the majority of plenary speakers are men, what sort of message does that send about future career prospects in that field? Women need equal representation so that the junior researchers can see their future selves represented. It’s inexcusable to still see all male panels (manels!) in 2019! Likewise I think any review board needs to be representative of the community it serves, to ensure that decisions are taken fairly with everyone in that community in mind.
In your opinion, what more could be done to promote gender equality in science?
I think the key issue here is that we shouldn’t try to “fix women”, we should make sure the systems are fair and change the culture to allow equal access to opportunity for all. For example, in our own institute applying for promotion is now a mandatory discussion point at our annual appraisals, this helps to remove barriers associated with people self-nominating.
How might we involve more males in gender inequality discussions?
This is really an important point and I think it is the responsibility of everyone – male and female – to address inequality. Men can help by championing the women they work with: nominating them for prizes, suggesting them as speakers and committee members for example. I also think men should refuse invitations to participate in conferences/panels where there is an all male line up, and they should suggest females who could be invited but might otherwise be overlooked.
And lastly, who is your female superhero?
I work with a bunch of strong women who inspire me every day, but a real superhero at the moment is BethAnn McLaughlin (@McLNeuro), who has been the public face of #MeTooSTEM, and is leading the fight against sexual harassment in science at risk to her own career. She is funny, no-nonsense and unwavering in her determination to call out inappropriate behaviour in science. A real role model and I hope I can find some of her qualities in myself!
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The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Neuro Central or Future Science Group.