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Women in Science

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Interview excerpt: Kay benefitted from the advice she received from mentors and supervisors who critiqued her draft fellowship applications. She thinks women are less inclined than men to ‘sell’ their achievements.

My experience generally of getting research fellowships has been a very good one and I think that’s because I was mentored so well. So there were always people, my immediate supervisors who would read my grants and really give me a tough time to make sure it was right before I put it in and that’s very important, that’s the sort of help you need, male or female, at every stage of your career, even senior people. It’s hugely advantageous if other people have got the time to tell you what their impression of your work is and what you’ve written down is.

Have you got any other tips for young researchers trying to write their applications?

I think the most important thing is to write it well in advance so that you have time to leave it for a week and then go back and look at it before you submit it because it’s a very emotional thing. Very often it’s your whole life’s work that you’re trying to put down on a piece of paper. And that can be very difficult to wordsmith in the right way and to show it to as many people as possible.

Any other reflections on grant writing?

I think for women you need to be a bit more up front about what your achievements are because, if you don’t say you’re competitive, there’s no way the referees will accept that you are. I’ve just written an MRC programme grant and I was astonished that one of my colleagues came back, on my track record. He said, ‘You haven’t actually said enough about your track record. Considering how much you’ve achieved, Kay, you’ve not put it strongly enough.’ And I was embarrassed to put even what I’d already put and I think that is a gender issue. You really need to make sure that you sell yourself well enough because the men certainly will.

Why do you think women are anxious about saying that they’re in, they’ve done so well?

I think it’s ingrained and I think ingrained even from the age of eleven or twelve. Boys don’t like bright women. They’re intimidated by bright women, so you get used to, very early on, down playing what you’ve achieved. So you’re very cautious about admitting to what you do and, of course, as you get older and go further up the tree, then it’s easier because, you know, first of all, you’re married, so you don’t have to go out now and find a mate. But, you know, people are still intimidated by women in a way in which they’re not intimidated by men and that you definitely notice.

I also read recently that fewer women apply for fellowships for funding than men. Can you reflect on that?

That is certainly, it’s certainly true that women don’t put themselves forward as often as they might. They always think about the reasons why they can’t do something rather than the reasons why they can and you can even see that in job applications. A woman will write her CV in an application for a job and say, well, you know, I can do this, this and this but, by the way, I can’t do this, this and this but that by the way bit never comes into the male application or extremely rarely. So you’ve really have to have a good mentor that will look over you and the applications and how you present yourself. And even now, I have to say, that I’ll get an award and I will say something fairly apologetic like, ‘Well, I’m sure it must have been a friend of mind on the committee.’ And some of my colleagues will say, ‘Kay, what on earth were you saying?’ You know, because you’re slightly embarrassed and even I am slightly embarrassed about getting the award. It’s nuts.

Do you think there are other reasons why women are not applying for fellowships?

Well, I think they think it’s too complex in the context of having a family and you have to be highly organised, there’s no question. Again, there are lots more role models out there now than there were when I was a younger, which helps, but it’s still a huge thing and, of course, it is a huge thing but you do manage.