“Why, me?” I asked, when the invitation came to write for this blog. “I’m not a woman in science — not anymore.”
Then I considered that the most useful thing I could write was the story of how a talented 25-year-old rolled out of Imperial College clutching an Astrophysics PhD and a one-way ticket to a prestigious US research institution…and washed up twelve years later as an unemployed mother of (almost) four. Academia and me looked like a match made in heaven. How did it go so wrong?
The first warning sign came early, at my Oxford University admissions interview. I asked whether Oxford would be offering physics with a language, as all the other universities I’d applied to did. The interviewer was flabbergasted: “but if you’re learning a language, then you won’t be learning as much physics!”
I turned Oxford down. But still, I wondered, was it possible to be too interested in too many things?
The second warning sign came when my PhD supervisor dragged me to a talk by the eminent Catherine Cesarsky. When the (then) Director General of the European Southern Observatory insisted “you can’t take maternity leave if you want to keep up your career”, my supervisor, the first female professor of physics at Imperial College, nodded vigorously. I felt uneasy. I was raised by a stay-at-home Mum. My role models were clashing. I knew I wasn’t my Mum, but I didn’t identify totally with these women either.
Third warning sign: as a post-doc at the Space Telescope Science Institute, I offered to give one of the monthly public engagement talks. My office-mate wrinkled his nose: “but why?” Educating the public counted for nothing in a young scientist’s career. Why was I not networking with the professionals? I couldn’t admit that I didn’t know how to. I was working for the first time under a male supervisor whose lack of warmth and encouragement often had me walking out of meetings in tears. I assumed I was not worthy of the other scientists’ company. I loved interacting with the public, but I was soon given the message that this counted for nothing.
Miserable, I quit Space Telescope and followed my fiancé to Melbourne where I took a part-time job editing Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia (“part-time” being synonymous with “career killing”). At the same time I cautiously watched post-graduates only a year or two younger than me. As they were introduced to the community, clutching their exciting new research topic, I’d feel a sick feeling that I was becoming stale. Astrophysics feeds on its young, sucks all the flavour out of them and then loses interest — moving onto the next hot young thing. At PASA I handled submission after submission of substandard work by otherwise good scientists who were using PASA as a dumping group for their underdeveloped research cuttings. They were bowing to pressure to “publish or die”. I didn’t want to be a part of playing that game anymore.
My falling out of love with academia coincided with a blossoming of other aspects of my life: marriage and pregnancy enabled (forced) me to tap into aspects of my intellect. Women, I suspect, are better than men at moving sideways. It’s not necessarily a hard-wired skill, more one that social strictures have forced upon us. In my case, my mental curiosity jumped happily from physics to the science and psychology of childbirth, to political advocacy, to setting up community organisations, to developing science outreach programs and finally to school teaching. The only problem is that none of these roles have earned me a cent. I, like so many talented mothers I know, volunteer my time because I have this fantastic pool of skills that no one knows how to use. “Lack of focus” would describe my CV — but is that really so bad?
The most important thing I learned during my teaching studies is that there is no absolute measure of which knowledge is most important. Yet academic research assumes that it is more important to discover new knowledge than it is to reflect on what that knowledge means for us, to elaborate or make connections between bodies of knowledge already uncovered, or to pass on what we already know the community around us.
This is one of our great missed opportunities. Academia has a long way to go catch up to women (and men) like me. We have too long accepted that a one-track progression through research and publication is the most (or only) fulfilling career for anyone with scientific talent. We need to acknowledge that scientific ability often goes hand-in-hand with linguistic, pedagogical, artistic or musical ability and put those abilities to use. We need a fundamental re-examination of how and why we do science.
Science is a mental state of constant curiosity. Science is a process of engagement, observation, reflection and practice. I am a better scientist than I was ten years ago. And yet…the loss of status and economic power is humbling. And so I sometimes wonder: Should I have promoted myself more? Should I have developed a thicker skin? Should I have got angrier? Should I have fought harder for the right to work flexibly? Should I have trusted my own talent?
It would be good, one day, to edge my way back into the university sphere and see how much has changed. I’m always ready for a new intellectual challenge. But will academia ever be ready for me?