Life as a Female Pharmacologist in Academia – Prof. Amrita Ahluwalia

The first WISE@QMUL event of 2016 saw vascular pharmacologist and WISE Award holder, Prof. Amrita Ahluwalia, take to the stage at the Charterhouse Square campus. Well-known as an engaging and entertaining speaker, even the change from the usual location at the Mile End campus didn’t deter the crowd.

The tone of the talk was set early on: although Amrita had no doubt that the enjoyment of science experienced by men and women was the same, women, she said, had a trickier time navigating the career progression than men. Addressing this problem is something she has dedicated a lot of her life to.

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Review: WISE event “Lost in translation”

On the 20th October 2014, WISE has organised an event called “Lost in translation” if you were unable to assist to it please find here the blog about the event from Dr Sharan K Sidhu

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 Dr Sharan K Sidhu (Staff adviser) – Clinical Senior Lecturer/Honorary Consultant, Institute of Dentistry

 

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 Professor Adina Michael-Titus talk

“We began the event with an inspiring introduction by Professor Adina Michael-Titus (Professor of Neuroscience, Blizard Institute), who shared her experiences in academia with the title “One of many journeys in need of translation?”. She described herself as wearing a “double hat” in terms of her interests, which lay with both neuroscience and pharmacology. “I’m a neuroscientist with a very pragmatic interest in understanding how to develop better treatments”. She discussed the core of her interests that came from “very early on” and her travels from her native country of Romania through France to the UK as her professional career evolved. Despite her many journeys, no matter how difficult they were, she maintained her “fire” for finding an answer to the issues that initially inspired her. Especially for women now who have a lot of obstacles to overcome, even in the west, it is important to have clarity over what really “makes you tick”. She expressed the opinion that whatever the passion that keeps a person going throughout their professional life, sharing a passion makes things easier irrespective of the cultural background or gender. In her narrative account of her journeys to date, despite crossing frontiers and interaction with people who are very different, sharing common intellectual passion makes transitions and translation issues much easier.

She then went on to discuss her personal journey from the east of Europe to the west of Europe, including an interlude in Scandinavia. She discussed her dreams as a student of being a neurosurgeon, and how she was put off by comments from a Professor of Neurosurgery who thought that neurosurgery was definitely NOT for women, and he thought that it entailed long hours, was too complicated and high risk. Her dream was not that easy to fulfil and due to many circumstances her career took a different turn to France, and as she recounted “despite our plans, life sometimes decides otherwise”. She described how she got very involved in medical research related to pharmacology and finished her doctorate. She recalled the words from a mentor- “ don’t go back to clinical medicine, there isn’t a structure, stay within science”.

Professor Michael-Titus then continued as a researcher and life took her somewhere else: to the UK this time, where she was offered a lecturer’s position – this was a fantastic challenge to increase her research group. “There have been many experiences every time I cross borders“. She discussed some of the differences between the French and the English, in particular that the Brits in general think freely, that there is always a different way of thinking, and differences in hierarchy.  She first joined a department full of older men, and she did have to put up with some innocuous jokes, but she felt that it is important not to take things too seriously, and it is  important to realise there is a difference in culture, that some jokes are not supposed to be sexist or rude, if there is a double entendre! She also discussed differences between the UK and Scandanavia, where there is a much clearer definition of professional and private life – being at work 12 hours a day will not get you extra brownie points; they have a much better work life balance. There is also no hierarchy in society or in academia. Her closing remarks were “Whatever you do remains your own personal journey, but if you keep tolerance, optimism and love what you are doing always alive, crossing borders is not difficult”.

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Dr Noha Seoudi talk

The next speaker was Dr Noha Seoudi (Clinical Lecturer, Dental Institute), who discussed her journey starting in Egypt, and through her professional career to her current role at QMUL.

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Professor Federica Marelli-Berg talk

The last speaker was Professor Federica Marelli-Berg (Professor of Cardiovascular Immunology, William Harvey Research Institute), who moved here a long time ago (in 1992

  1. As a young woman, she was very ambitious She said you have to make choices in an academic career and as a woman that is not easy. She chose to come to London as she liked London but found her first year a massive shock, where she met with new accents that she could not understand. She offered some advice for example, theimportance of finding a nice safe homely place and a nice place to go in the evening. after the long hours in the lab..
  2. She discussed her first trip to the pub and the culture difference, and the first pint! It si important to be happy where you are and to integrate.
  1. She went on to discuss the importance of maintaining a balance between personal life and professional life. It was important for her to get as much as she could out of her working day, instead of sitting in front of the desk until 12 o’clock as an experiment was running. She made a light-hearted comment about her efficiencyat having only one maternity leave, by having twins. Nevertheless, there were difficulties without family around to help as they were in Italy, which meant incredible expenses for nursery fees.

Prof Marelli-Berg went on to praise the support for women at QMUL; women being taken seriously is very good at QMUL and a significant factor in her move to QMUL from Imperial!

She mentioned her constant doubts of being a good mother; there is a balance between being good in your career and being a good mother. She still looks for reassurance from her daughtersas it does stay with you: the fact that she had to send them to nursery, and that she could not give up her career.

She described the differences between the UK and Italy in that it is how good you are and how ambitious you are that drives you in Italy- there isn’t the same opinion here as there is Oxford and Cambridge to judge success.

She loves promoting the career progression of young ECRs in academia, she doesn’t do it only for women, but for men too, she lets anybody under her umbrella to help young people who want a career. She wants to be somebody that facilitiates the career of those under her.

Her advice was to find a mentor, whether a woman or a man; she felt that it is key to have real heroes.”

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Free food as often in WISE event

The Glass Cliff – Feedback

Passport Photo Fearon Cassidy, WISE committee member gives us feedback on the talk given last week by Professor Michelle Ryan. If you have missed it  here’s the time to catch up.

 

 

“This week I attended a talk by Professor Michelle Ryan, where she explained how she serendipitously uncovered the subtle sexism that goes on beyond the glass ceiling

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Michelle Ryan is a Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter. With Alex Haslam, she has uncovered the phenomenon of the glass cliff. This research was sparked by a newspaper article that claimed that companies with women as their leaders were more likely to fail. Professor Ryan revealed that in reality the causation of this association was reversed – women are more likely to be hired into positions of power in times of crisis. Research into the glass cliff was short listed for the Times Higher Education Supplement Research Project of the Year in 2005 and was named by the New York Times as one of the ideas that shaped 2008.

Consider the scenario: recession has hit, things aren’t looking good. There is going to be a big fall-out, redundancies, cut-backs. Stocks are falling. Whatever it is, things are looking bleak. You need to hire someone in or promote someone up who can deal with the crisis. What traits will this person require? Professor Ryan explains that her research has shown that in this situation people seek a leader who has endurance and empathy, with good management skills and who can take responsibility for the situation. These also happen to be traits that the general public consider to be female traits.

This leaves us in a situation where a person’s traits are assumed, subconsciously, based on their gender, rather than their C.V. The consequences of this are not initially obvious. We are talking about a rather impressive skill-set that women are being assumed to have, we are talking about them being called in to do a job a man is assumed to be inferior at completing. Maybe this is good news for equality? Maybe this is a compliment to women? Women could be happy, even proud that in a time of crisis they are called in to apply the band-aid. The motivations are based on women being different, not inferior. Women are different. So is there anything wrong with this?

The problems become evident when we take a look at the longer term consequences of these subconscious decisions. Is it fair to disproportionately select women for jobs that have an inescapably higher risk of failure? Is that the environment you would want your daughter to encounter? She will push ahead in her career, impressing those around her, excelling in her field, and then being appointed a leadership role with new responsibilities. The new job requires a huge investment from her, she tackles it gracefully and with clear talent but it’s too little too late. The company was doomed before she held the reins but she takes the hit and watches her hard work crumble to dust at the bottom of the proverbial glass cliff. The confidence knock and the reputation of failure married to the societal ideology that she is of that age, lead her to drop her career in favor of a role in the home.

In broad terms, the sector loses out on an asset that has been heavily invested in through years of training. Business in general is likely affected by the deficit of females in high up positions. Talented young females lose out on the possibility of a role model in their area of interest, thereby depriving companies of their potential in the future. But on top of these logical and financial reasons to protest the acceptance of the glass cliff scenario in society, there is the ethical argument. A moral obligation for equality. A female should have the right to be judged on her credentials and not the perceived notions of society that generalise and stereotype women and men into separate compartments. There are traits that are more likely to be associated with a particular gender, but these vast generalisations should not be the building blocks by which we select leaders, nor is it fair that they should be, even in a world where they held absolutely true.

The daunting question of how to change this inequality, so subtle in its action and so critical in its result, remains. And the answer is, like so many things, simple to say, not so simple to do. Forcing the subconscious to the conscious through awareness of the decision making process and taking responsibility for articulating decisions based on things like “gut-feeling”. Women and men are just as likely to fall into these traps. It is not your traditional sexist male thinking women are inferior. It is a deeply ingrained idea of what it means to be a woman or a man that has formed through the subtle cues we pick up through our lives. Therefore, this awareness must be felt among women as well as men. On top of that, awareness must come from the prospective employee as much as from the employer. When you are offered that position, think about it. Is there support there? What is the quality of the position in terms of career progression? Will taking this position lead to long-term personal success?

Don’t just wait to be offered a position that might railroad you down a certain track. Keep on top of positions becoming available and put yourself forward for the roles that fit your criteria. Be aware of where you are and where you are going and take responsibility for your own future, hopefully the rest of society will catch up sooner or later!”

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Picture edited from (Weyant & Cagle Cartoons, 2013)Weyant, C., & Cagle Cartoons. (2013). Truthdig – Tag – Path To Citizenship. The Hill. Retrieved November 27, 2014, from http://www.truthdig.com/tag/path_to_citizenship

WISE@QMUL visit Cambridge AWiSE for their 20th Anniversary event

On the 2nd October 2014, Cambridge AWiSE held an event at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge to celebrate their 20th Anniversary.

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  Daisy Gooch,  PhD student in the Blizard Institute and active committee member of WISE@QMUL, is our blogger for this event:

 

 

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“Last week Louise & I escaped our respective labs for an afternoon and hopped on the train to sunny Cambridge to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Cambridge AWiSE. The Cambridge AWiSE network was set up in 1994 following the publication of ‘The Rising Tide’, a report published by the government on women in science, engineering and technology. This report documented the underrepresentation of women in STEMM fields- demonstrating that even where women predominate at undergraduate level, such as in the life sciences, they are lost at every career stage until they are a small minority. In 2004/5, only 11.5% of professors in life sciences were women, a figure which 10 years later has risen only to 15%. ‘The Rising Tide’ report noted the value of women’s networks and mutual support, and thus Cambridge AWiSE was founded to connect and inspire women in STEMM, which it has been doing ever since.

The first order of the day was attending a meeting of women’s networks, chaired by Anne Clarke, Anne Clarke – Business Analyst, Bloomsbury Library Management Group and vice-chair of the AWiSE steering group to discuss the challenges faced by women in STEMM, at which we were joined by Sharan, our staff advisor for WISE@QMUL. Key issues raised included existence of the gender pay gap- despite the 1972 Equal Pay legislation. It was mentioned that in circumstances where pay rises and promotions must be applied for, women are less likely to put themselves forward and so miss out, which I found interesting. Lesson learned here: have the confidence to ask for what you want! We also discussed how beyond degree level a big problem is the retention of women in STEMM. Flexible and part-time working needs to become more acceptable and more easily available. A recent survey by Cambridge AWiSE found that 43% of respondents who had asked for a flexible working arrangement had had their proposal accepted. However, many respondents who had taken a career break found that there was a barrier to their return. These barriers included the need for retraining, the end of contracts (particularly for postdocs), lack of confidence and difficulty finding part-time work. The University of Cambridge is working to overcome these barriers by establishing a returning carers fund, available to both men and women returning to work after a career break. This fund could be used for training courses, or part time staff to maintain laboratory research, or to establish a Cambridge based collaboration with other scientists. Similarly, the British Heart Foundation is now offering Career Re-entry Research Fellowships. This type of funding has a lot of potential to aid retention of talented workers in STEMM fields who would otherwise have left STEMM altogether.

After the afternoon meeting we were treated to talks from an impressive array of speakers, beginning with an introduction and welcome by Lord Sainsbury of Turville, who was followed by a retrospective by Dr Jan Peters, one of the authors of the 2002 SETFair report on women in science, engineering and technology. Next, we were privileged to hear a set of talks from professional societies and employers in STEM: Professor Lesley Yellowlees, Immediate Past President of the Royal Society of Chemistry and Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh; Dr Gillian Arnold from the British Computer Society; Professor Jeremy Sanders, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Cambridge; Dr Anne-Marie Coriat, Chair RCUK Research Group, Research Councils UK; and Dr Jasmine Fisher, of Microsoft Research Cambridge and the University of Cambridge. The presence and visibility of role models such as these in STEM fields can surely only help to raise the profile of STEM careers for women. It was a very special and inspirational evening and quite a privilege to hear successful women talk about their careers, and also to hear how initiatives like Athena Swan really are making a difference to the lives of not just women in STEM fields, but for men too. As a result of the success of this event Cambridge AWiSE are planning on running an event for women’s networks every six months, so thanks for having us, Cambridge AWise- we’ll be back!”

 

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From left to right, Sharan Sidhu (Staff Advisor, WISE@QMUL) Louise Anderson (WISE@QMUL current chair), Daisy Gooch (WISE@QMUL membership manager), Penelope Coggill (Cambridge AWiSE Co-Chair), Anne Clarke (vice-chair of the Cambridge AWiSE steering group)