Naomi: Caroline, what made you want to be a PI?
Caroline: Basically, I got to the place in my postdoc where I had way more projects and way more ideas than I could possibly do myself. That’s why I wanted my own group – to be able to answer these questions.
I also wanted my own agenda. I didn’t want to be answering somebody else’s questions.
What about you, Naomi?
Naomi: Although I loved doing experiments, I loved mastering a technique, and I loved getting data in fresh off the press, what I really loved was dreaming about a project and putting a project together and strategically fitting all the puzzle pieces together.
I also really wanted to lead a team, and I wanted to change the culture of science, and I get to do all of that now as a PI, which is great.
You obviously started your lab a little while ago. How do you think things have changed for women in science since then?
Caroline: I started my group in 1995 and the main difference is that there were very many fewer female group leaders. There really wasn’t very much in the way of female role models.
It was hard then for postdocs to see women doing science and realise that there were lots of different ways that you could be a woman in science.
In conferences, there were very few women speakers, so postdocs never got to hear women speaking about their science, and they didn’t have people they could emulate. In fact, in 2000 I was one of only three speakers in a whole four-day meeting.
Things have changed hugely now, because organisations like EMBL, FASEB, Gordon Research Conferences, or Cold Spring Harbor will only approve meetings if they are very well gender balanced. I think this makes an enormous difference for postdocs to be able to know that women really can be successful scientists.
The other thing that has changed is women on panels and committees. When I started out, there were very few and I was often the only woman in the room. Now that’s quite rare and I think that’s been a huge change and is to everyone’s advantage.
Naomi: I think that makes a massive difference – having a diversity of role models that you can look up to. When I was thinking about becoming a PI, I chatted to loads of different women PIs, and it wasn’t necessarily the ones that were really confident and outgoing that were the most encouraging.
It was the ones who were quietly getting on with some really excellent science and really changing the culture of science. Those were the people that empowered me and that I saw as my role models.
Do you consider yourself to be a role model?
Caroline: Yes! Certainly I do. I think it’s a real privilege. I’m always delighted if people tell me that I’ve influenced them positively or that I’m a role model for them, and that would go for men and women.
I’d actually go one step further – I think it’s really important for postdocs wanting to become PIs that they have not only mentors, but that they have a sponsor as well. You really need someone batting for you and somebody that really believes in you, and I think sometimes for women finding that sponsor can be quite problematic.
Naomi: Do you think that’s partly why there is an under-representation of women in group leader positions?
Caroline: Science is a very full-on career. It’s incredibly time-consuming. It’s difficult. You need bags of confidence. You also need a very thick skin. You need to be able to survive lots of setbacks.
I also think there’s a perception – perhaps between both men and women – that it’s quite a difficult career to combine with a family, or in fact any sort of personal life at all.
I think sometimes postdocs look at that, and they decide to go for another career path that they think might be easier to combine with a family.
I actually had my son quite late. I was already a very established group leader when I had him. As a junior group leader, I did wonder how easy it would be to combine family life with being a PI. But I looked around at all these women group leaders I admired and I realised that most of them had managed it.
I would say that now with a lot of organisation and definitely support on the home front, combining family life and being a PI is totally possible.
What I’ve realised is that being a PI is actually very flexible compared to a lot of careers. It is more flexible than a career like law or medicine or teaching, and certainly more flexible than anything that might have a public-facing role.
What other barriers do you think might hold women back?
Naomi: I think there are legitimate concerns about the job and what it entails. Some people say that they don’t want to be writing loads of grants, and it can be a struggle. As you say, it’s quite all-consuming.
I think the flip-side of that is that often there is quite a lot of self-doubt, thinking ‘I’m not sure I can do this’, ‘I’m not sure I’d be good enough’, or ‘I’m not sure that I would be a great PI to the team’.
What’s really difficult is disentangling the two and being able to say whether hesitation is coming from the fact that I don’t value the role (which is completely valid) or coming from a place of self-doubt, and thinking that I’m not good enough. I would very strongly push back against that. Self-doubt shouldn’t hold anybody back from doing it.
Caroline: We’ve said that there are now many more women being PIs. Do you think that now we’ve reached the point when men and women early career group leaders are treated the same?
Naomi: There are definitely far, far fewer barriers and discrimination now than there were before. I think with schemes like Athena SWAN and diversity and equality committees, there’s definitely an understanding of how important it is to have diversity on hiring committees, and how important it is to see unconscious bias in our day-to-day lives and in our workplaces and to tackle that.
I don’t think we’ve reached full parity yet. Already, just when I got this position, quite a few people said to my face that part of how I got the job was because I’m a woman and a non-white woman at that.
There’s definitely a kind of tokenism – a weaponised tokenism of the diversity agenda, that I think we have to really challenge and stand up to and say ‘that’s not acceptable’. We have to change the way that we see women in science and diversity in science as a whole.
Caroline: If we unpick that, what people are thinking is that the ‘right people’ to be scientists are men?
Naomi: Exactly, and I think it’s not just men and women. It extends far beyond that into the whole culture of science, and what we historically have seen science as – the playground of the wealthy white male, with a wife at home to do all the domestic chores.
Clearly that’s not what society is like nowadays. Our understanding of science and how we do science has to change to reflect that.
If we value success in a different way, and if we value diversity of personality and opinions, then that’s going to enrich science for everybody. It will make science a better place for all of us, not just women in science.