Interview with Jenny Koenig (Fellow of University of Cambridge, UK)

In continuation of our special content for Ada Lovelace Day, we interview Dr Jenny Koenig

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Formerly a researcher at the University of Cambridge (UK), Koenig is now further pursuing her interests in the education, training and communication of science and is currently embarking on her teacher training in Secondary Science (Chemistry).

In this interview, Jenny describes how she entered the field of medicinal chemistry, the pressures on scientists in academia who choose to raise a family, the gendering of labour along traditional lines, and her outreach work for CamAWISE.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

Well, I am originally from Australia – neither of my parents went to university, mainly because they didn’t have the opportunity to do so. I went to a selective girls school and it never occurred to me that girls typically didn’t do maths and science, both of which I enjoyed, so I just pursued it. I also had an interest in music at school ­– I played the trombone and the piano, and was involved in the orchestra. So when I left school I had to decide between music and science, and since I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I chose science as I thought it was a more secure in terms of later finding a career. I considered doing physics and maths at university, but there were only 4 girls in the class and that really put me off. In the end, I took chemistry, which I much preferred and from there I became interested in pharmacology and I pursued the two subjects for the rest of my degree. In retrospect, I think it’s a real shame that I was put off from studying maths and physics at University because there were so few girls in the class – this is something I didn’t consciously realise was significant in my decision making at the time.

When I was finishing my degree I again wasn’t sure what to do next, but I had really enjoyed the research project during my degree and I liked the idea of doing medical research. Neither my parents nor any of my family really had any idea of what that meant and I’m not sure I really did either. Since I had done well academically, I got a scholarship to the University of Cambridge (UK), which is where I did my PhD. Honestly, my main reason for doing this was because I really wanted to travel and this was the only way I was going to get 3 years paid for in another country. Ultimately, the main reasons that I got into science were that I loved finding things out and how things worked and I liked the challenge of it, so I guess I was just following my interests.

Who/what inspired you to embark on a career science?

I can recall a couple of teachers in first and second year chemistry at university who really took an interest in their students. They would come up to you in a practical and find out what you were interested in and they behaved as though you mattered. In maths and physics, however, I found that the lecturers didn’t seem overly interested in you. So I suppose it was a couple of the female lecturers in chemistry who provided me with the encouragement that I needed.

A study carried out by the L'Oréal Foundation in 2015 found that just ~11% of women hold the top academic positions across the EU. What do you think are the main reasons for this disparity?

I believe that there are lots of reasons, and I think that this is the most important thing to say. It’s the accumulation of lots of small things that together really make a difference. There was a study recently in PNAS, which revealed unconscious bias among senior men in STEM fields. I don’t think that these men are doing it deliberately or maliciously but I do think that sometimes when you try to explain the issue to them, they just don’t get it! There is an increasing realization of the degree of unconscious bias but not yet an understanding of the degree of impact that this has. It affects both women and men. For me unconscious bias is the major issue as if you look at the way committees work and how appointments work you can see that, when you are attuned to it, all of these very small things that are going on, such as subtle comments towards someone and very implicit discussions. I think it was once the case in the UK that childcare was an issue for women in science, but I don’t think that this still stands, because women who don’t have children also struggle in academic careers. I think part of the issue is that there exists an expectation that women are going to want to spend more time with their family and if they end up doing so, it is to the detriment of their career. I think it’s sad that men don’t have the opportunity to spend more time with their families. There are an increasing number of couples who share the childcare, a lot more so than in the past, but still when people are making recruitment decisions they make some really quite careless assumptions about what women want, and they don’t really take the time to find out for themselves, they just assume that women will want to stay at home with their children.

Do you think that there are sufficient systems in place to support women scientists in academia who choose to raise a family?

I think that the issue here lies in your question, which shouldn’t contain the word ‘women’, as part of the problem is that systems are not in place that support scientists who choose to raise a family, so it ends up falling on the woman as that’s what is generally more socially acceptable. I do not think that it is just childcare that is significant here. I actually think that childcare is a lot better than it was – my daughter is now 15 years old and it’s changed enormously in that time – but I think that there are many other things that are needed in the support network. For example, in an academic career, typically you are working very long hours and many of your friends are also academics. You also often have to move away from you family, so you don’t have the family network behind you that people in other careers might have. For example, when my children were small, my family were all in Australia, my husband had a job that wasvery long hours, so we had no family support around, which makes an enormous amount of difference. As I also worked long hours and all of my friends were working, I had nobody to call on during the day if I wanted someone to look after the baby for a couple of hours while I went to get my haircut, for example. Or if I needed to go into the lab to speak with a PhD student, I didn’t have anyone that I could leave the baby with. If someone was to ask me now what I would have done differently, I would have made sure that all those support networks were in place before I had the children. When my children reached school age, I made the point of working part time, so I could pick them up at the school gate and that’s where I met other mothers and built that much needed support network, so that if I was delayed on the train coming back from a meeting in London, I could phone a friend and ask them to pick up my daughter for me, if I was going to be late. If my parents were living nearby, things might have been easier, but I was forced to work part-time so that I could take care of my daughter and build those support networks. So I think that it is those more subtle support systems that are as important, if not more important, than childcare.

Are you involved in any outreach schemes that offer support to women in science?

In 2004, I became the founding chair of CamAWISE, which aims to provide a forum for networking with fellow scientists and a safe/comfortable environment for women to talk about their issues and work out potential solutions by sharing ideas. The organization holds events on various topics such as presenting research, negotiating salaries, applying for jobs, interview techniques, which allow people to gain key skills. More support for organisations like this one, would be really helpful.

You mentioned earlier that recruiters often discriminate against female candidates as they assume that they wish have a family and stay at home to raise their children. Do you think that having quotas is the solution to this issue?

No is probably a very unsatisfactory answer, but I would like to see more benefit of the doubt given to women in the minds of the recruiting panel. If you have formal quotas, you get resistance from men, and people might say behind their backs that they only got there because of positive discrimination. What’s better is to do unconscious bias training and make recruiting panels very aware of the psychology of their decision making, so that they really think hard about what they’re doing, and can be helped to see where their implicit biases are. I just think that the use of quotas is a bit of a blunt instrument.

What advice would you give to woman wishing to embark and advance in a career in academic science, who also planned to become a mother one day?

I would encourage them to form good social and family support networks so that they have that flexibility. It’s imperative to have that support network in place when you have had a bad day at work and you go to pick up your kid and they’re screaming, tired and grumpy and you get home and there is nothing in the fridge. Or indeed if you or your child get ill. Having a support network around you to get past those really difficult times is really important.

For further reading on gender biases in academia, please see Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students

Go to the profile of Hannah Coaker

Hannah Coaker

Contributor, Future Science Group

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