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Women in Science

For this study we interviewed senior women who were University professors, associate professors or senior scientists, as well as a few women earlier in their careers. Some women described their career development as ‘almost by chance’ or ‘serendipitous’. Alison E said ‘I remember coming to towards the end of my research fellowship at New College and not having a postdoc and then suddenly everything landed at once’. Eleanor talked about receiving ‘a lot of support in terms of people showing me where I could apply which was great’. Others described having to create opportunities for themselves. The paths women took to get to Oxford also varied with some women working in several universities (in the UK and abroad) first while others stayed after doing an undergraduate or post-graduate degree in the university.

'Recognition of Distinction'

The University of Oxford has a ‘Recognition of Distinction’ exercise through which senior staff can apply for the title of professor or associate professor. Jenny, who is a professor and Director of the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, and Alison W., who is an associate professor and university lecturer, explained what was involved in applying through the Recognition of Distinction.

Click for Jenny's interview© Women in ScienceTo apply for the title of professor, Jenny needed support from her head of department, an up-to-date CV and a number of people who were willing to act as referees.


Click for Alison's interview© Women in ScienceAlison, commenting on the process of Recognition of Distinction applications, thinks that women may find the system of self-promotion difficult.


Click for Tamsin's interviewTamsin started at Oxford as an RCUK fellow in 2006 and described a ‘relatively straightforward course’ to professor.


Eleanor was surprised and delighted after being encouraged to apply to be an assistant professor and was made a professor the following year.

Portrait of Leanne Hodson© Women in ScienceLeanne was encouraged to apply for Recognition of Distinction. She says that at the time she didn’t think she was at the right level to apply for it and might have waited another year before applying.


Self-promotion and sponsorship

Some women discussed how they were encouraged to apply for promotion and some thought that women could lack confidence in their abilities. Katja said that people may have to ask to be re-graded. Several referred to a view that men will apply for jobs if they fulfil 25% of the essential criteria while women won’t apply unless they fulfil 125%. However, this is a stereotype and, as Marella pointed out, not all men are ‘alpha types’ and probably suffer from the same self-doubts as women. We also talked to women who described themselves as ambitious, competitive and were well aware of the need to demonstrate an interest in progression and opportunities early in their career.

Portrait of Samira Lakhal-Littleton© Women in ScienceSamira believes in looking for opportunities. She has always felt that it is important to apply for promotion without waiting for encouragement.


Click for Hazel's interviewHazel reflects that it was more a case of following opportunities than actively pursuing a predefined idea of an academic career.


Click for Alison's interviewAlison pushed for promotion to Professor to help be taken seriously by research councils.


Click for Katja's interview© Women in ScienceKatja explains how she negotiated for a better salary when she started at Oxford. She knows female colleagues who needed encouragement to apply for re-grading.


Click for Kristina's interviewKristina feels people can sometimes be too loyal to an institution and recommends moving or changing jobs regularly.


Lucy thought that women should be more pro-active and approach relevant people when they know that a job is coming up for which they are qualified. Kay pointed out that any time a job comes up the senior men have a number of protégés that they put forward for each job. Kay thinks women need more sponsorship; she tries to collect names so any time anybody asks her about a job she has got a woman’s name to put forward. Fran said that we can’t encourage junior women to take up this career ‘unless we can guarantee parity and fairness.’ She said that there should be transparency about how promotion committees make decisions, and more transparency about pay. Others also said that they didn’t know if men and women in their field were paid equally, and that there should be more transparency on the subject of pay within the university.

Bridging the gender gap

Portrait of Fran Platt© Women in ScienceFran thinks that men are more likely to be self-promoting than women and that the data should made available to make sure that women are treated equally.


Portrait of Prof. Eleanor Barnes© Women in ScienceEleanor has no idea what others are paid. It is hard for her to tell whether or not there is gender bias because the information isn’t publically available.


Today the situation at Oxford may be changing, perhaps due to the Athena SWAN Charter (for more see ‘Athena SWAN’) which requires self-scrutiny and actions to address gender gaps within departments. Irene T was aware fewer women put themselves forward for prizes and rewards, which means that their achievements are relatively less visible, which can perpetuate the impression that women are less successful.

Jane L, a Professor of Plant Sciences, thinks that some people don’t want to progress, and while it may be culturally acceptable for women to remain in junior positions it is not culturally acceptable for men to ‘stop going up the ladder.’ This can have negative consequences for men as well as women since, as Kay pointed out ‘you don’t want to be over-promoted and you don’t want to under-achieve.’

Portrait of Jane Langdale© Women in ScienceJane thinks that men feel they must push themselves forward for promotion. She says that she would not have agreed to be head of department if anyone had opposed her.


Obstacles to promotion

Carolyn, a university research lecturer, has recently applied for her post to be re-graded from a Grade 8 to a Grade 9, which she has to do before applying to be an associate professor. She said that she was encouraged to do that. When there are new posts she thinks that the University prefers to appoint ‘bright young things’ from outside Oxford, and that those leading departments sometimes assume that people will want to stay in Oxford even without progression. She also said that funding bodies don’t want people who have been in postdoc positions for long because they are too expensive. Carolyn said that she would have been happy to remain in a permanent postdoc position, had such an option been available.

Click for Carolyn's interview© Women in ScienceCarolyn would not have applied for her current job if her supervisor hadn’t encouraged her to apply. She would like to have had a permanent post as a postdoc running a lab.


Jane M, who works as a clinician and teaches medical students, also pointed out that some women, particularly those in academic medicine, find it so hard to juggle all their roles that they may not have the time or energy to sit on committees and take on management roles which count towards career progression and so may give up trying to be promoted.

Portrait of Jane Moore© Women in ScienceJane thinks that some women, particularly those who are clinicians, have so many roles that they feel burnt out and may decide to give up the struggle to get promotion.


Click for Helen's interviewHelen's opinions about the difficulties of career progression have shifted as her career has progressed and after she had children.


Training and coaching

The University provides personal development programmes, resources and courses for staff ( Alison B thought that women should be better trained to take on management roles. After her DPhil she did a number of courses offered by the University.

Portrait of Alison Banham© Women in ScienceAlison did training courses in time management, running research groups, managing budgets, dealing with conflicts and handling stress. She also went on a Springboard course.


Portrait of Kay Davies© Women in ScienceKay attended a management course, which gave her confidence. She also went on a leadership course which she found ‘hugely helpful’.


Marella wanted to find someone, such as a business executive coach, who could help her to progress in her career. She attended a course that she found very inspiring. She learnt that women should build on their strengths, such as their willingness to collaborate with others. She also learnt other important lessons.

Portrait of Prof Marella de Bruijn© Women in ScienceMarella attended a week long course called ‘Women Transforming Leadership’. She learnt that confidence doesn’t equal competence and she found it very empowering.


Some University initiatives are targeted at women at a particular stage in their career. Some women commented that peer mentoring depends on a good match and may not be suitable for everyone. (Also see ‘Role models, mentors and sponsors’)

Oxford also has a Careers Service ( with careers advisers who offer objective, confidential careers guidance based on people’s individual needs. This guidance can include (but is not limited to) feedback on documents such as CVs and cover letters and discussing options for further study.

Portrait of  Jennifer Anderson© Women in ScienceJennifer attended University courses such as CV writing, and a workshop on interview skills. A seminar on alternative careers was particularly useful.


Being good at everything

There are a number of women scientists at Oxford who are very high achievers. Helen A, who is at an earlier stage of her career, wondered about how she was going to manage to be ‘really good’ at the various roles she wanted to maintain. Marella felt that her perfectionism had been a barrier. She had learnt to be a little more forgiving of herself.

Click for Helen's interview© Women in ScienceHelen would love to be promoted to professor one day but she worries about how to be a really good clinician, researcher, teacher and (hopefully) a mother too.


Portrait of Prof Marella de Bruijn© Women in ScienceMarella said that at one time she lacked confidence, perhaps because she is a perfectionist.

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