Are we Wired Differently? Discussing Women in Science

The Women in Science event was held in UCD on 7th March in celebration of International Women’s Day. Prominent female scientists were invited to share their inspiring success stories, what motivated them to pursue these careers, what barriers they faced, and finally, to pass down any wisdom they had for budding young scientists. Being a woman pursuing a scientific and medical career myself, this event was of particular interest to me and I had the opportunity to attend as well as ask the presenters one-on-one questions.

Professor Orla Hardiman is a clinician scientist, meaning that she works both as a clinician, treating patients for neurological issues, and also as a researcher. Her research focuses mainly on neurodegenerative disease and motor neuron disease. For Prof Hardiman, the brain is the most interesting thing in the world, motivating her to further her research in order to understand how to better help treat her patients. She also teaches at Trinity College in the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience.

Dr. Cliona O’Farrelly is the Chair of comparative immunology at Trinity College. She’s fascinated by the immune system in different organs and in different species. Although she started off as a microbiologist, she was always very intrigued by the interactions between infectious agents and hosts, and that led her to be the first woman in Ireland to earn a PhD in immunology.

Prof Emmeline Hill is a horse geneticist and professor at the UCD veterinary school. She studies the genetic reasons behind what makes one horse faster than another.

Prof Ronadh Cox is a geologist who is currently a professor in Massachusetts. She studies how storm waves carve out and transport giant boulders on coasts, particularly on the west coast of Ireland.

Dr. Maria McNamara is a palaeontologist whose interests lie mainly in the evolution of feathers, pigments, how fossilization happens and fossil preservation at University College Cork. The aspect of her undergraduate course that scared her the most was in fact fossil preservation, but when a PhD project came up in fossil preservation she thought to herself that she can either do it or stay afraid of it for the rest of her life – so she went for it!

On the topic of why to pursue a career in science:
The opinion was shared amongst all the speakers: the best part about being a scientist is discovering things before anyone else has. Pursuing a career in science allows you to keep learning and gaining new skills that you wouldn’t have considered possible. A career in science opens many doors; you’re able to work in different places and make connections. You become part of a network.

The opinion was shared amongst all the speakers: the best part about being a scientist is discovering things before anyone else has.

Emmeline Hill described that indeed thae best things in science is being the first one to know something. She always had the burning question of “why did one horse run faster than the other?” She grew up around horses, and her grandmother was a jockey and one of the first women in Ireland to compete against men. Professor Hill always knew that she wanted to pursue a scientific path. It was when she first took a genetics class that she was hooked to the subject. At the time that she started her studies, there was no such thing as horse genetics, and there were no immediate opportunities to pursue a career in this field. She did her PhD in human population genetics and evolutionary genetics, and then moved to cattle genetics. She said that she applied the knowledge that she gained about cattle genetics to understand the genetics of racehorses. She ended up discovering the “speed gene”: myostatin. This was a ground-breaking discovery in equine science, and there was now information available to make predictions on how a racehorse might do based on this gene. She ended up starting her own company and owning the IP of that gene. Professor Hill’s story is an inspiring one of taking a different path to achieve a lifelong dream.

On the topic of female mentorship:
All the speakers emphasized the importance of mentorship. According to them, it is crucial to see that people before you have done it, and it shows that there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to do the same. Dr. Hardiman described the importance of mentorship for young scientists, especially female scientists. Throughout her career, she met some extremely bright scientists who taught her everything she needed to know about medicine as well as academia. However, in her opinion, these mentors did not progress as far as they should have in their careers. She considered that this was from lack of mentorship from more senior level females. Professor O’Farrelly also got “life changing advice” from another female professor at the very beginning of her career. The advice was to find one thing that she can delve into and become famous for, and to make somebody famous know her. That’s what she did and it worked – she is now famous herself, and a very prominent figure in the field of immunology. Professor O’Farrelly won an award at Trinity College for “Mentor of the Year” in 2014.

Mentorship of any kind is a key aspect of having success in a scientific field. In some fields, such as geology, there simply were not any females to fill this role when Professors Cox and McNamara were undergoing their studies. Professor McNamara in particular described that when she started her degree there were no female lecturers and all she has was male mentors. These male mentors were great, and the issue of being a woman never actually came up. She was assessed on the basis of merit, and she always felt completely supported. She explained that surrounding oneself with good people, male or female, is very important when pursuing a scientific career.

On the topic of barriers:
The biggest barrier described by all the women who spoke at the event was the issue of starting a family, and taking maternity leave. In fact, many of the women who spoke never felt any barriers to their careers until this point, where problems came up with maternity. Indeed, having children still greatly affects a woman’s career, and is a big issue for many women in science.

Maternity policies of funding agencies came up often – scientific funding agency policies do not give extensions or pay for maternity leaves. This puts a huge barrier on women, which is unacceptable, they argued. At University College Cork for example, women must take a maternity leave starting on one of four days per year. If a woman’s baby is born between those specified days, they either have to come into work shortly after they have given birth or start their maternity leave months before the due date. This leads to post-doctorate students who do not continue their studies, and end up having to choose between their educations and having a family. Furthermore, some funding agencies do not take into account maternity leave when evaluating a scientist requesting funding. Funding agencies are much more likely to give funding to a scientist who has a larger output of work and publications. However, when on maternity leave, women often will not be able to publish, and therefore when compared to men who did not take that time off, women are put at a disadvantage that gets perpetuated throughout their careers.

The biggest barrier described by all the women who spoke at the event was the issue of starting a family, and taking maternity leave.

However, it does not end there. As Dr. Hardiman described, women tend to be the ones who pick up the kids from school, making them have to leave earlier from work. Therefore, women who want to have families tend to make career choices at that critical point between the ages of 30 and 40 that are not as career driven as men, for example. Women also fall on average 5-10 years behind men on the career ladder, depending on how many children they have because of the time they need to take away from work on maternity leave.

There are issues for women in science, especially in academia. Dr. Hardiman spoke of the most recent data from Trinity College that suggest that women do very well in the early stages of their career and are on par with men, however, in their mid-thirties the differences between the stages of a woman’s career begin to become more and more apparent. Based on the data she spoke of, at the pace that things are changing now it will take until 2098 to have gender equality at all levels and career stages.

So what is behind the lack of women in higher positions? It surely is not because women are unable to do so. According to Dr. Hardiman there are a number of unconscious biases that make women think about things in a different way. These unconscious biases make individuals have preconceptions about what men should do or would do, and what women should and would do. These result in exclusion of women in roles that are historically male-dominated.

On the topic of male vs. female brains:
The discussion around whether or not males and females have different brains, or are “wired differently”, females have different brains, or are “wired differently”, was a topic that led to a heated discussion amongst the speakers.

“Women do very well in the early stages of their career and are on par with men, however on average after in about the mid-thirties age range the differences between the stages of a woman’s career begin to become more and more apparent.”

It began with the idea that decision-making is critical for career development. Professor Hill was of the opinion that for women, decision-making is not the same as decision making for men. She explained that there is an evolutionary theory that men are greater risk takers, and women are more risk averse. This is because of biological properties that risk and reward goes along with breeding success. Women and men therefore think differently, and there are different neurological circuits in consideration of risk and consideration of reward.

This then led to a strong rebuttal on Dr. Hardiman’s side. She explained that while it may well be true that we behave differently, the evidence to suggest that female and male brains are different when we’re born is poor. She believes that we’re acculturated to behave in a certain way and this becomes normative behaviour based on what our sex or gender is. The idea that there is a female and male brain is probably a male construct, she argues. She would suggest that what might be perceived as women being more risk averse is indeed acculturation. She expressed a desire that those in science be aware of these behaviours, and conscious of the biases that we inculcate in people from very early on in life.

Her view is that we have plastic brains, and we can look at how brain networks can develop, evolve and compensate. We have changing patterns of networking. The idea of the brain being set the day we’re born is incorrect, and the idea that we’re consigned to behave a certain way is a very simplistic view of the complex thing that is the brain.

Parting words and advice for young women in science:
To end their talks, the speakers gave some words of advice for young females pursuing a future in science. The general sense from all of the speakers was that yes, there are barriers but they can overcome them if you believe in yourself. We should strive to change the issues that impede us from achieving things we want to our full potential. In the meantime it is important to make the world, as it is now, work for us as women. We need to see ourselves as scientists, and be confident in the work that we are doing.