Chair of DAUK, Dr. Jenny Vaughan talks about her experiences of sexism when she first joined the profession.
Leading women in science and medicine have laid bare the continuing sexism and misogyny in the laboratories and hospitals of Scotland.
They have spoken out to expose the discrimination, implicit and explicit, curbing women’s careers and warn it must end if more girls are to be encouraged to work in science.
Some of the country’s most successful scientists and doctors have spoken frankly about the discrimination they have experienced or witnessed and how it has held women back.
They have demanded a sea change in the way women are treated in the key fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Professor Dame Anne Glover, formerly the first chief scientific officer to the president of the European Commission and Scotland’s first chief scientific officer and now president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said: “There is still a good deal of misogyny about.
“Some older men clearly find it very difficult to accept women in senior roles. They are more accepting of younger women as they do not present such a threat to their historical dominance in science and elsewhere.”
In 2019 the Royal Society of Edinburgh organised an exhibition, called Women in Science, to highlight the careers and achievements of some of Scotland’s most influential female scientists.
Glover said: “There is a well-worn phrase, you’ve got to see it to be it. That is why the exhibition was so important and has been made available digitally to schools.
“But why did it take until 2019, and a woman president and a woman chief executive by coincidence, to do this when the RSE was founded in 1783?
“STEM is for everyone and it’s important young women as well as their parents appreciate this. Starting in schools to describe careers in science and what scientists and engineers do is important. Investing in this is investing in a smart future for all of us.”
Figures from 2019 reveal there are now one million women in STEM occupations across the UK, an increase of 350,000 in a decade, but despite that rise, women make up just 24% of workers in those roles.
Meanwhile in medicine, despite the fact that more than half the UK’s medical graduates are women, a significant gender gap remains in senior roles.
Only around 25% of medical directors and 36% of NHS chief executives are female, while women only represent approximately 15% of professors in UK medical schools.
Glover said the lack of childcare provision is a huge obstacle, adding: “It is very foolish indeed to invest in the education of women and then to throw that away by not supporting those who wish to stay in science or engineering whilst having a family.
“Support needs to be provided for both parents to contribute to having families. In research there is a good deal of presenteeism where people feel they need to be seen in the lab.
“We should focus more on output. Maybe this is something we can learn from how we have worked during the pandemic. Parental leave should be a priority and flexible working for both parents should be the norm.”
Research scientist and lecturer professor Helen Galley of Aberdeen University, a world-renowned leader in her field of anaesthesiology and intensive care, says some male scientists struggle with women in senior positions and echoed calls for change.
Professor Galley said: “One of the worst was being told by a conference colleague, in his Welsh accent, how much he enjoyed my perfume and wished he could smell it on his pyjamas! I was furious and told him ‘in your dreams’. I’m sure my response now would be far more robust.
“It’s still a man’s world. I’ve been mistaken for a secretary and the man I was with was addressed as professor.
“In the world of academia I’ve learned that the way to be successful is to be visible. That’s clearly extremely difficult when you have children to take care of.”
Professor Galley was awarded the Sir Humphrey Davy Medal by the Royal College of Anaesthetists, a Fellowship of the RCA, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Biology and Honorary Fellowship of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine.
She said: “Becoming a professor is a challenge for women because they are generally the ones who care for children or parents, and that is why traditionally there have always been so many more male professors.
“I believe we are seeing things change, but we need to make it easier, including the better provision of childcare.
“Women have to stop feeling guilty, as I did. And the whole imposter syndrome thing is something women struggle with while men don’t.”
Jenny Vaughan, a consultant neurologist and chairwoman of The Doctors’ Association UK, recalls an early encounter with sexism on the wards: “I remember two senior male colleagues on a ward round very pointedly suggest that my intended career in neurology was not right and that I instead aim for a speciality they deemed easier.
“While I could have been crushed, I continued to believe that I could and persevered. It motivated me to work harder and my advice to any women in medicine is to believe themselves to be capable.
“There should be a proactive stance to attract women. Family friendly policies for the increasing number of women medical students becoming doctors are vital, although men should share childcare. Mentoring is also really important.
“We should be looking positively at how to retain everyone because we are extremely short of doctors.”