LIFE | L’Oreal Girls in Science Forum

Dr Elena Tucker, left and Dr Zoe Hilton, right

Dr Elena Tucker, left and Dr Zoe Hilton, right

When I found out L’Oreal were holding a Girls In Science forum to discuss women in science and introduce high school girls to strong female role models in science, I really wanted to go along. Unfortunately, like many good things, it was in Auckland and I am not. Fortunately, the lovely Teresa (you may know her blog, Brush & Bullet) agreed to go along and cover it for Hyacinth Girl. Anything that supports women’s education is something I will 100% get behind. I wish there had been an event like this for me to go to when I was a chemistry student in high school!

If you’ve spent any amount of time whiling away your working hours on Facebook, you’ve probably have noticed posts from the I Fucking Love Science page popping up on your newsfeed. Stem cells, quantum entanglement, videos of snakes devouring crocodiles — it’s 2014, and science has hit the zeitgeist. Science is for everyone. Science is cool. So you gotta wonder at all the surprised, condescending, and downright sexist comments when it turned out the IFLS page was run by Elise Andrew, a woman.

*points, mouth open* GIRL!!!

wow, your [sic] a hottie!

Umm. Are you single? When it comes to women, brainy rules.

Please sell this page to a male.

According to a report commissioned by the L’Oreal Foundation*, fewer than one in three scientific researchers are women, and the percentage of women in scientific research has increased by only 12% since the late 1990s. What’s more, only around 12% of senior positions in science are held by women. No doubt this is due in a large part to societal factors, so are those moronic reactions above really any surprise?

In an effort to challenge gender expectations, L’Oreal teamed up with UNESCO in 1998 to establish the Women In Science programme as a way to recognize, promote, and encourage women scientists. The aim is to make science more accessible, as well as promoting science as a career to young women.

This is a cause close to my heart. I gravitated towards science at school, completed an honours degree in Biomedical Science, and am now finishing up a Masters. Admittedly, in New Zealand we don’t seem to have it as bad as some of the stories I’ve heard from overseas, but I’ve seen firsthand some of the attitudes we have towards women in science — the surprise, the condescension, ​​the casual sexism; not unlike the responses to Elise being a chick.

Dr Elena Tucker, right; Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, far right

So it was super heartening to attend the recent Girls in Science forum hosted by L’Oreal, where 150 Year 11 and 12 students from schools around Auckland came to hear three New Zealand women scientists talk about their careers and what it’s like to be a scientist. The forum was chaired by Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, a past Laureate of the Women in Science Fellowship programme, and featured the 2014 Australia For Women in Science Fellow Dr Elena Tucker, and 2012 International Fellow Dr Zoe Hilton.

One notable theme is that of work/life balance. Zoe, who works at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, talked about the decision of both remaining in science and having a family — some of her coworkers at the Cawthron have young children and work part-time. Elena has just finished maternity leave and is planning on putting the L’Oreal award towards her new work, which will be looking at disorders of sex development with a genomic approach.

The three of them agreed on the fact that working in science is about passion, and listening to your intuition, along with plenty of hard work and perseverance. There is a lot of continual development in science; generally funding goes for two to five years, and research is never static, so it helps to be open and flexible to change.

Louise from Margaret Brimble's lab at the UofA talks to students from Westlake Girls about life as a scientist

Louise from Margaret Brimble’s lab at the University of Auckland talks to students from Westlake Girls about life as a scientist

The students had the opportunity to ask Zoe and Elena questions. Nicole from Carmel asked about the most difficult parts of their careers — Zoe talked about “working too much”, and how competitiveness and finding balance can be major issues; Elena talked about long and boring experiments, and the value of perseverance when things get tough.

Bella from MAGS asked how long they spent at uni. Both Elena and Zoe took a range of subjects before settling on science, which meant at least 4 years in undergraduate studies and 3 years or more doing a PhD. I’ve also known people to pursue a PhD after doing a Masters, or having had a few years of industry experience.

Students from Diocesan Girls

Students from Diocesan Girls

A key message from all three to future scientists is to study what you enjoy. Often science involves a lot of uncertainty, so you might as well enjoy the ride! Hopefully the forum inspired a few young scientists-to-be — or at least knocked the notion that science is “just for boys” on the head.

*The Boston Consulting Group, 2013 Women in Science, commissioned by L’Oreal for Women in Science Foundation.

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  • Thanks for the opportunity Morgan! It was great to see the girls’ enthusiasm.