Many of the challenges young researchers encounter in building a career in science are relevant for both men and women; yet, numbers show that women drop out in significantly higher numbers than their male peers: whereas 57% of life sciences PhD graduates in the EU-27 were women, this number falls to 13.7% for female scientists in top research positions in natural sciences. (2010, She Figures 2012, p.60 and p.93). Why does this happen? One suggestion has been that a lack of careful career planning acts as a contributing factor to this “leaky pipeline” phenomenon.
When asked how strategically she planned her own career, Inke Näthke, Professor of Epithelial Biology at the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology at the University of Dundee in Scotland, answers with a smile: “I basically had no plan at all, it would have been limiting for me.” Growing up in the Northern German town of Itzehoe, Inke was not quite sure what educational route she wanted to pursue after her school leaving exams. “My parents supported my idea to explore life in a different culture, so I decided to take a year off and took on a job as an au-pair in California”, the scientist remembers. “After having spent one year in San José, it became clear to me that the college system in the States suited me perfectly. I did not have to concentrate on one subject straight away, at school I had loved languages, maths and physics. Finally I enrolled as a pre-med student at San Jose State University, but soon changed to biochemistry - I was fascinated by exploring the chemical language of life”. After graduating Inke was again faced with the question whether to return to Germany or not, and, at the very last minute, once more decided against it. After one year of working as a technician for a small biotech company, and a short stay in Germany for immigration purposes, Inke Näthke chose to attend graduate school at the University of California, San Francisco. What motivated her to follow a career in science? “The eighties were a great time, there were many opportunities for trained scientists and collaborations between the disciplines were just emerging: for example the links between biology and chemistry were still in their infancy. Science was immensely interesting and exciting, I really liked the style of career offered by it”, the researcher recalls. At UCSF Inke was introduced to cell biology, a path which she followed after her graduation in 1991 with a postdoc at Stanford, where she found the subject area that has accompanied her career ever since. She established a functional link between the APC protein (adenomatous polyposis-coli), the major tumour suppressor in colorectal cancer, and the cytoskeleton, a topic her lab still works on today, using a variety of experimental systems to investigate the various functions of APC and to explain how mutations in Apc drive tumour progression.
By the end of her first postdoc, Inke was married to a fellow scientist and had given birth to her first child. After a second postdoc at Harvard and the birth of her second child she grabbed an opportunity to start her own lab at the University of Dundee. “Conditions for family life were attractive and everything was just starting there, it was a new place that one could help take shape”, she comments. Was there someone who aided her career path? “I think mentors are very important for young scientists. However, other than my PhD and postdoc advisors, who were immensely supportive, I never had a formal mentor. Instead, I adopted my own mentors. Often these mentors were women, from different walks of life. I was lucky to find a few ‘adoptive’ mothers while I was in the US, who were of great help to me”, remarks the researcher. But life has not always been running smoothly. Early on in her career, as a technician, Inke was subjected to sexual harassment. A few years later, Anita Hill accused her boss, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of the same offence and the resulting hearings were widely televised. Although Anita Hill was treated badly the proceedings raised awareness and were crucial in changing attitudes towards sexual harassment. “Together these experiences taught me that it is my responsibility to say out loud when things are wrong, or do not work for me. If you stay silent, nothing will change”, Inke reflects, “just being angry does not achieve anything. Keeping to facts and not making things personal helps in getting people to listen.” In the last few years she has been taking singing lessons, which have not just provided personal enjoyment but are also teaching her how to use her voice effectively.
Science is a very competitive environment and it requires hard work to keep going. At one time it looked as if her research programme would not be renewed, tenure seemed unattainable, rejections for papers kept arriving and her private life was unravelling. Inke managed to and continues to manage to overcome the difficulties: “I told myself, you have two years to figure this out - and I did”. Whenever things have been getting tough, the scientist asks herself what would be the worst thing that could happen. The answer may be unpleasant but clarity and a direct approach help to develop new strategies: “If you are scared, you freeze, it stifles your creativity to come up with new solutions”. Today Inke Näthke is a tenured professor, and chairs The Life Sciences Athena SWAN Self-Assessment Team at her university (Athena SWAN is a national network in the UK to encourage commitment to address gender equality in higher education and research.). She also acts as one of the initiative’s role models and advocates a well-considered and realistic approach: “Role models are important for women, but we should be careful how we present ourselves. A career in science is not without setbacks and this should not be kept unmentioned. It is important to ‘hit a wall’ at some point early in one’s career, for example during a PhD, it helps the development of strategies for coping with the challenges failure brings”, the researcher observes. Sometimes well-meant lectures present an easy and perfect career, an image, which rarely corresponds to reality. The danger is that young female scientists could view the bar as being set too high and careers in science as unattainable for themselves.
Inke Näthke does not believe that her career was necessarily more difficult than it would have been for a man, but women encounter particular challenges. Some of these may just be a consequence of a skewed gender balance. A mathematical model developed by Karen Petrie, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Computing at the University of Dundee illustrates this point: It shows how underrepresented populations are more likely to experience inappropriate behaviour. If in a given population the percentage of men and women who make sexist comments to the opposite sex is equal, but overall there are fewer women than men, then the average woman will receive more insults than the average man. This number grows exponentially, meaning that if there are four times as many men as women, the average women will experience 16 times more inappropriate comments, although men and women hold equally sexist attitudes. “The beauty of this model is that it contains no bias”, Inke says, “it is just simple maths.”
If she knew the answer to how to successfully fight the leaky pipeline syndrome, she would own a consulting agency and make a lot of money or be in politics, she laughs, but perhaps the world of science looks too unattractive and competitive to young women, who are traditionally more concerned about job security and averse to risk-taking. They may lack the confidence and worry about not being good enough. Her advice to young female researchers is not to always take responsibility for solving the problems going on around them and to care less about what other people may think, to trust themselves to do the right thing.
“It seems crazy to let go of a large proportion of the intellectual power that could take science forward. Losing so many women who have been trained for such a long time, means we miss out on ideas for how to address and solve the many problems of today’s world”, she comments. Inke is a strong believer in the importance of diversity, science and research can only benefit from the different attitudes, approaches and ideas both genders contribute to exploring the secret of life.