A Crash-Course on Women in Science

BY Alicja Krawczun-Rygmaczewska (from the 2019 archive)

As I was entering Dr Anna Battaglia’s office on a still under-represented in the field. In the UK, only Friday morning I was prepared to ask few questions and leave no more than 20 min later. My goal was to pick up some of hers and Dr Isabella Gavazzi’s thoughts on the issue of women in science but I didn’t want to overuse their hospitality. They were both so busy after all. Little did I know that I wouldn’t leave until an hour later, with enough material for a book, and still so much left to be said.

“You need to be proactive,” Battaglia said passionately before I even asked them my first question,

“the one-day-it-will-happen attitude is not good enough.”

“The executive of this faculty is almost entirely made up of men, despite a fairly large number of professors, only one of them is female,” added Gavazzi,

“but it’s much better now than it was before. When I first started working as a post-doc at Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, whenever I’d pick up the phone, people thought I was one of the cleaners. And it was a very logical assumption to make. I was the only woman scientist in the Department of Anatomy back then.”

I risked a remark that in the grand scheme of things not that much time passed since the events Gavazzi mentioned.

“It was over 20 years ago,” she laughed, “But that was before they started thinking proactively to address the gender imbalance. The first changes occurred without any pressure, which I think is especially important.”

In fact, UK has noted a record number of students attending universities this year. Amongst them, also a record number of women are attending higher education courses related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). There is an almost equal number of women and men in STEMM related courses. However, women are still under-represented in the field. In the UK, only 13% of people employed in STEMM are women. And when it comes to Nobel Prize in sciences, merely 3% of the winners are female (in all categories summed up, women constitute no more than 6% of winners).

“I think it’s about time we balanced the scales,” I suggested. “The problem is, how do we do that? We need the famous change in culture – but how do you make it happen?” Battaglia replied. “The IoPPN is doing much better,” said Gavazzi. “They are pushing a little bit more,” Battaglia continued. “They are much more proactive, have the diversity policy and diversity committee that is very active,” Gavazzi continued, “training is very important, to make everyone aware that not everybody gets equal opportunities and we must focus on what the other person is capable of doing, not their other features such as gender or race. Everybody needs the same opportunity, and it’s not just male and female, it’s everything. This is why I’m against quota. It’s actually slightly patronizing.” “Me too, I really like the equality of opportunities but then, everybody should have the same chance,” added Dr Battaglia. “Gender shouldn’t play a role either way. It’s not the way forward. It might take us a little bit longer to get where we want to, but when we finally do, it will be on true equality rules.”

For the longest time women were not very welcome at the universities, especially in “hard sciences.” Laura Bassi, the first female professor in the history of Europe had to study privately before defending her PhD in 1732 and even then, she was not allowed to lecture publicly. Women trying to become medical doctors had an even harder time. It wasn’t until 1849 that Elizabeth Blackwell became first female medical doctor in the United States and not until 1859 that she could freely practice medicine after founding her own infirmary together with another fellow female physician – Maria Zakrzewska. In the UK, Elizabeth Garret Anderson was the first woman to openly obtain a license to practice medicine in 1865, but she also had to study privately and eventually used a legal loophole to attend The Society of Apothecaries exam. Right after she passed the examination with the highest mark, The Society quickly amended its laws to make sure no woman could repeat Anderson’s trick. That lasted until 1876 when a legislation ensuring women could attend medical universities was passed, thanks to the combined efforts of The Edinburgh Seven – a group of women who enrolled into the medical school at University of Edinburgh and campaigned for equality for a long time.

“The equality should start in schools, or even much earlier. Even nowadays, the question of ‘What kind of job should I do’ is different for girls and for boys,” Battaglia said passionately. “I do these STEMM talks in secondary schools, and you can see that so many girls still set very low goals for their lives. But it’s just because nobody told them about their options, nobody motivates them to pursue them.” “No one told them they can,” I offered. “Exactly! And now there is all this worry about grades so the teachers keep the students’ goals really, really low, so maybe they can just make it, you know?” Battaglia continued. “There was one girl, that was really into med-icine and she bombarded me with emails after my talk, and later, she got in. Her teacher, as she told me later, used to say to her that – maybe medicine wasn’t for her – but she got in. So we need to start at the very, very basic level.”

“There was this study, where they showed that girls only scored worse than boys on the maths test when the kids had to tick off the ‘gender’ box” added Gavazzi.

“Girls can only do ballet, and paint, you know when you hear ‘oh she’s so good at painting, she should be an artist,’” joked Battaglia. “And ironically, these are all still fields dominated by men,” dropped in Gavazzi. “Women are supposed to be great in the kitchen but all the best chefs are men!”

“What about the good stuff? Can you tell me something about the support you received throughout the years?” I asked in hope to lift up the mood slightly. We have been quite negative so far.

“I’ve been supported by her!” Battaglia pointed at Gavazzi and they both laughed. “When I first came here with my husband I didn’t have a job, we had a three year old child and after a year of staying home I decided to look for jobs. I picked King’s because it was a great place but also because it was close to the trains – it would be convenient for me to pick up my son after work. Even that choice was dictated by me having a child, I knew I could not do whatever I wanted.” She reminisced. It turned out that she ended up having an interview with Gavazzi, who was coordinating her first independent grant at the time. They connected very quickly and even learned they came from the same town in Italy. Later, Gavazzi made sure to have someone else interview Battaglia again to avoid personal bias.

“So we started working together and started and entire new field of research,” Battaglia continued, “then I had twin boys, so I had to stay home and she supported me throughout that time, let me come back after that time. She waited for me and then I went part time for three years. When I came back, she told me she was pregnant!” they both laughed again.

“And then the technician in our lab also had a child,” remembered Gavazzi. “We were a very productive lab when it comes to babies.”

Battaglia also told us that when she told her mother she was having twins, her mom immediately asked her if she was going to leave her job. “That was the expectation. That’s it, you’re done” she recalled, “but with her [Gavazzi] help, my husband’s help and really many, many people’s help I’ve managed to do it. My children were also very supportive all the time when they grew older. They help a lot. I think I’m very lucky.”

Battaglia wasn’t the only lucky one. Many famous women of science wouldn’t have succeeded or been recognised for their work if it weren’t for the help of other open-minded people. Marie Skłodowska-Curie would have missed out on her first Nobel Prize if it weren’t for her husband’s moral support. While the Nobel committee initially planned to only nominate men – Pierre Curie and Henry Beckerel – Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, a member of the committee contacted Pierre in a letter explaining the situation. In response, Pierre immediately wrote to the committee presenting an ultimatum – him and his wife were to be considered for the prize together, as a team or not at all. That way, Marie Skłodowska-Curie was rightfully recognized for her accomplishments and became a first woman in history to receive a Nobel Prize. A group of African-American mathematicians from USA, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Johnson Vaughan could also talk about support both mutual and received. They were all full-time NASA mathematicians andmothers who had to overcome not only sexism at the workplace but also racism. Had it not been for the support of their community, friends and family but also few coworkers – Mary Jackson for example was encouraged to pursue engineering studies by the boss of her division, Kazimierz Czarnecki – they would have never been able to overcome the societal prejudice and reach their full potential.

“What about the inspirations? Do you remember the moment when you decided to pursue science?” I asked, realizing how vague and naïve this question might sound.

“Yeah,” Battaglia responded immediately, to my surprise. “It was an interview I saw when I was 16, with Professor Montalcini. It was on TV, there weren’t many programs back then. And there it was at five o’clock. Before, I wanted to study astrophysics, but when I saw her talking about the brain and neuroscience I said ‘that is my thing.’ And that was it. I later managed to get an internship in her lab for two years.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if I heard Battaglia correctly. To have Rita Levi-Montalcini, the first and only woman in Italy to receive a Nobel Prize in medicine for her work in neuroscience as a personal inspiration and a mentor – unimaginable.

“And [the lab] was full of women! She was very much into that, supporting girls. The only man in
the lab was a technician who was doing all Professor Montalcini’s experiments. She was more of a designer, almost like an artist.” continued Battaglia.

“She wrote many books, she was still working until she died. And all her books were less scientific and more inspiring, telling her story. Telling how important it was to be flexible. To her, if you really wanted to succeed in this field, you had to marry science.” added Gavazzi.

“She was a huge role model,” Battaglia nodded. “And she liked the bigger picture,” Gavazzi carried on. “She would always say that the older you got, the bigger your knowledge grew and you were able to see bigger and bigger picture. And in science it is the only way to have any new ideas.”

“I think all the people discriminating against women,” concluded Gavazzi. “They weren’t doing it because they were bad, but because they weren’t thinking about the consequences of their actions. But if you make it obvious to them and they realize what they’re doing, maybe, because they’re not bad, they will change their way? I’ve seen a lot of change, a lot of support offered for mothers in science, for both of the parents. I think the whole public debate is changing a lot now.”

The entire meeting left me with three predominant feelings. First was gratitude, for all the strong people, the trailblazers who were able to challenge the prejudice back in the day and stand for what they believed was right. Then, hope that those times are more and more progressively behind us. Even the misrepresentation now is more of a reflection of the past with new, more diverse generation of scientists just waiting to start their work. And finally motivation, because ‘the one-day-it-will-happen attitude is not good enough.’ Even despite all this change happening, there is still a lot of injustice. There are still people not giving women in science a second thought, treating our ambitions as a modern trend. There are still people who don’t see this imbalance, and don’t believe it needs to be addressed. And finally, people who get inexplicably furious whenever a woman ‘makes it,’ trying to deny her the rights to the success. Now I know that whenever I wonder how there are still misconceptions about women’s abilities. How in the world of Rosalind Franklin and Rita Montalcini, in times of Donna Strickland , Mae Jemison or very recently Katie Bouman. We still have to fight to be treated seriously, and with respect. Now I know I have been looking at if from a wrong perspective. Because those ladies, and those of many, many more, are the faces of progress. And we’re not done changing yet. Marie Skłodowska-Curie said she was ‘taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy’. There is no time to sit and wait for the change because it is already happening, fast. We are that change.

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