SCIENCE has traditionally been a male endeavour. The stereotype of men in white coats poring over microscopes and petri-dishes hasn’t changed, though many women are at the forefront of scientific research.
TV programmes such as The Big Bang Theory, which depict female scientists, like the characters Amy and Bernadette, as ‘unhot’, don’t make science appealing to girls and significantly fewer female than male students are taking subjects such as applied maths and physics in their Leaving Certificate.
But women such as Dr Bernadette Doyle, vice-president and global technical head of pharmaceutical giant, Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK), based in Cork, are proof that there are roles for female graduates in the scientific sector.
“There is a lot of hidden bias, with regard to women in this industry, but there shouldn’t be,” she says. “Traditionally, it has been seen as a boy’s role, but there are lots of women in the sector — many of whom I mentor, to ensure they have the access and support they need to succeed.
“These are women with high potential, who will do very well in the industry. And those with families will also get support, so they have a work-life balance which suits their needs. I have been working for GSK for 20 years and, during that time, I had my three sons in quick succession and my bosses have always been wonderfully understanding, which allowed me to be there for the boys when they were growing up.
“This meant I didn’t travel very much during the early stage of my career, but, since then, I have had plenty of opportunity. And despite people thinking it’s all about lab work, I don’t spend much time there. I visit other facilities around the world to discuss technical support, innovation, and people development. A big percentage of my job is finding the right people for the right job and there are plenty of great opportunities available for women.”
Dr Doyle says her love of science began when she was too young to know it was a school subject.
“I had a fantastic teacher in primary school, called Sr Mary John, and she introduced me to the scientific method of learning by discovery,” she says. “Through her teaching, I developed an interest and a curiosity for how things work, at an early age, and then when I went on to secondary school, I was lucky to have another great science teacher and a brilliant maths teacher. Both of these kept my interest alive.
“This led me, naturally, on to study chemistry and mathematics in college and as both my primary and secondary school introductions to science were through female teachers, I had great role models, so never thought of it as being a male subject — it was just something I enjoyed.”
The Cork-based scientist, who likes nothing more than a dinner party with good friends, good food and good wine, says not only are girls more than capable of taking on science roles, a significant increase is needed to balance the gender divide.
“Traditionally, it has always been accepted that boys will be interested in science,” she says. “It was seen as a nerdy profession full of men in white coats with test tubes. Thankfully, this image is changing and many more women are getting into this sector, but it isn’t changing quickly enough.
“If the current disparity continues, it will be 50-80 years before there is gender equality in the scientific world and that is not a good thing.
“The interest really needs to be ignited at an early age and should be encouraged in primary schools. This should then be nourished and developed and, as the girls grow, so will their curiosity — this should be followed all the way through to college level.”
For any girls who may be undecided about their career choice, Bernadette, a University College Dublin graduate, says: “Look at me and what I have managed to achieve over the years,” she says. “I have a family and a very interesting career. There is a wealth of roles available in this industry, with everything from working on researching new medicines, advancement in technology and even working on over-the-counter products.
“I have been doing this job for 20 years, but I am still learning something new every day. I would encourage girls at school to start looking at science as an option.
“The world could be their oyster and what could be better than a role where you can participate in helping people, discovering something new, and learning how to promote longer lives.
“To put it in a nutshell, I can’t imagine a more exciting job than one which helps to discover a cure for something like ebola.
“Science is evolving all the time and every week brings something new. To be a part of something like this is incredible.”