Guest column: Do women in science need a break?

8 Mar 2014

Geneticist Aoife McLysaght. Photo by Martin McKenna

Women have been making scientific breakthroughs for just as long as men. So why do we still not see or hear enough from them? On International Women’s Day, geneticist Aoife McLysaght explores the issue.

At some point in life, each of us needs a break. Maybe even more than one.

When I was a post-doc in California, my boss gave me a break by inviting me to give a talk at a major conference he was organising. Stinks of nepotism, doesn’t it? But conference organisers rarely take a punt on a complete unknown – they’ll usually invite someone they’ve heard talk before, or someone that comes recommended by a colleague who has heard them talk. It doesn’t sound like a flawed system until you realise that it usually acts to maintain the status quo. When that status quo is strongly skewed in favour of one gender, then that’s a bad thing. 

My boss had decided to be proactive about righting that. He was specifically looking for more women to invite, and he wasn’t going to find them by thinking of people he had previously seen talk at conferences. 

I have attended conferences where I was the only female speaker, or where I was one of three (out of 30 or so). I distinctly remember one conference I attended as a PhD student, where there were zero female invited speakers. It hadn’t even dawned on me that this was wrong (I was becoming used to it already) until I witnessed my (male) PhD supervisor challenge the (male) organisers about why they hadn’t invited any women. Their immediate response was a shrug and ‘Who could we have invited?’, to which my supervisor replied with five names in five seconds. 

Things don’t fix themselves, you know

Science needs greater equality of opportunity. Across Europe, only 33pc of those working in science are female. In most universities in the UK and Ireland, the faculty (lecturers, readers and professors) is overwhelmingly male. In my own university, only 18pc of the science faculty is female. This is despite the fact women make up roughly half of the PhDs.

Inviting more women to give talks at conferences and in other public arenas is important. Conferences give greater visibility to your research, give you confidence when going for job or research funding interviews, and can lead to invitations to get involved in academic journals or conference organisations. In other words, giving a talk is the first step along the way to becoming an influential character in your field. 

Greater female visibility is also important for the young women and girls who are just starting out in science. They need to see role models; women who work in science and have stayed for a full and rewarding career. You can’t imagine how depressing it is to be the oldest woman in the room at only 35 – it’s impossible not to start imagining your own expiration date.

Women’s careers are not being shot at dawn, rather it is a death by a thousand cuts, with lack of visibility, and the exclusion from decision making that follows, being one culprit. 

Evidence has shown that we all (women included) have absorbed cultural prejudices that mean we see science as more male. Because science is seen as more male, it is easy to unthinkingly fall into the habit of inviting more men to give talks and into other positions of influence. Because more men are invited to give talks, science seems more male. Et cetera.

In order to change this women need a break

This year, the Royal Institution (RI) in London has decided that, for the whole year, their prestigious Friday Evening Discourses will be presented by women, and I am lucky enough to be one of them. These discourses are a public engagement exercise initiated by Michael Faraday, who also initiated the Christmas Lectures (the 2013 Christmas Lectures were presented by Alison Woollard of Oxford University). Each of us will give a talk aimed at the lay public, with the hope of informing, engaging and entertaining the audience. 

The initiative by the RI to give a platform to women this year isn’t a case of tokenism. Rather, it is a wonderful act of leadership – an example of the action that can be taken to break the habit of always inviting talks by the same people. What’s more, this important and necessary decision by the RI has the potential to extend beyond their walls and beyond this year by inspiring young people to see the opportunities for anyone to have a career in science – all that’s needed is an unanswered question and the curiosity to pursue it.

Aoife McLysaght is the principal investigator in the Molecular Evolutionary Laboratory and lecturer in genetics at Trinity College Dublin. She will present her Friday Evening Discourse, Too much of a good thing? at 8pm on Friday, 28 March, 2014, at The Royal Institution of Great Britain. Never fear if you’re not in London. The RI will be posting the video on its RI Channel after the event.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland. You can nominate inspiring women in the fields of STEM via email to or on Twitter to @siliconrepublic.