Women in science event highlights progress and persisting barriers

‘There isn’t a sort of one-size-fits-all’ way to success, says Prof Charlotte Watts

A large room of more than 70 successful women scientists from Ireland and the UK – ranging across the private sector, government, healthcare and academia – might send the wrong signals, said Prof Charlotte Watts.

It was a justifiable time for celebration and networking but the risk was that it might suggest to some people “things are okay. It’s all getting better. We have equality in gender issues nailed”, the chief scientific adviser and director of research and evidence at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said to the gathering.

The event was an important opportunity to review progress and to identify barriers persisting in career paths for women scientists, she said.

It was hosted by the British ambassador to Ireland Paul Johnston at Dublin’s RDS to mark International Day for Women and Girls in Science, with some prize winners from the 2023 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition present.


Watts and Prof Breda Smyth, the HSE’s first woman chief medical officer, were the guests of honour. They recounted remarkably similar experiences and challenges in advancing their careers – besides playing prominent roles in advising their respective governments on how best to respond to Covid-19.

In both countries there are difficulties on the gender mix in key areas of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) education at third level, notably in engineering, technology and physics. This in spite of growing evidence that diversity is not just important in terms of creating a fair and representative workforce but critical to success in Stem industries.

Watts got into science from mathematics at a time when people didn’t think women could do maths. “I quite liked when I was in school being in a classroom of boys, and competing with them, and sometimes being better than them.”

But there were patronising comments too, such as “I didn’t know girls could do maths” and “why do you want to do a degree?” At university she was the only woman; lecturers called her “the token female”.

“They thought that was sweet. But actually it’s very patronising,” she said. Watts comes from a line of strong women, so the more people would say, “women can’t do maths”, it drove her on. She completed her PhD in maths, which on top of her love of the subject was “a sort of feminist statement” and then moved into mathematical epidemiology.

Before going into government and specialising in research analysis to inform policymakers, she became a professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where the atmosphere was more supportive.

But soon she had to juggle having children and demands of academic life, which can lead to drop-off of women scientists. The reality of having kids, taking maternity leave, and then having to slot back into a competitive academic environment while competing for research funding in a job that often comes with insecurity is a challenge that men don’t encounter, she said, though they needed to be included in creative solutions. In trying to secure a work-life balance, she said, many ask, “can I be a scientist?”

Smyth was fortunate in having a role model in her mother, who was independent and adamant her three girls would have equal opportunity to her son, who was the oldest. “So we all pursued our academic careers, totally supported by both parents that we would achieve as high, if not higher, than the boy in our family who we all love dearly.”

Both parents were teachers and there is huge interest in music in her family. “The expectation also was that there was no difference between boys and girls in that either ... you would learn and perform and compete in the same way as a boy would. There was no difference in the expectations, once you had the talent and then that you achieve your full potential,” she said.

She got a wonderful education though there were challenges in pursuing Stem subjects at Leaving Cert level because she wanted to do physics. The school ensured she and other girls were facilitated, rather going to the local boys’ school. That difficulty was soon addressed throughout the Irish education system.

Smyth went into clinical medicine and then public health, which is dominated by women. Though they trained as consultants, women in public health medicine only achieved parity and consultant status during the pandemic; “a female-dominated speciality” ensured they eventually gained equality.

There are a lot of females achieving the highest grades and going into medicine. And then it’s the challenge of keeping them in medicine and actually making the career adaptable for women

—  Prof Breda Smyth

Watts underlined the importance of mentorship and peer support as well as having role models, ie seeing successful women scientists. Having her first child early, Watts recalled an instance when she had to complete a research paper and called up a professor to ask: “how do you do this?” But she got grounded advice that stood to her the following years.

Smyth recalled a similar scenario when trying to complete a thesis for her medical fellowship in the days after her first baby was born. Prof Emer Shelley, who was then dean of faculty, explained about deferral, providing “the reassurance that you weren’t seen as a failure by not actually achieving that deadline, that there are other deadlines you can achieve. And it’s okay to put your family first at times and to balance it – and to move it all forward together”.

In Ireland the medical profession illustrates that pressure point perfectly. Smyth noted 42 per cent of doctors in Ireland are women but among doctors aged 25-34 it’s 53 per cent. That’s only going to increase because those going into medicine are predominately women.

“There are a lot of females achieving the highest grades and going into medicine. And then it’s the challenge of keeping them in medicine and actually making the career adaptable for women,” she said.

Smyth acknowledged how difficult it was for 30-something doctors – including men – to progress a serious relationship and to have a family in the medical profession, which is organised around long shifts, weekend work and rotations etc. It was also a problem for health and social care professionals, she said.

Medical and healthcare staff retention issues have become an acute problem for governments in Ireland and elsewhere. In addition to structural changes, it required collegiality, flexibility and understanding from line managers, she said.

Watts accepted things were improving on gender but that there were still issues. Chatting about “the commonalities of experience” was helpful in understanding how to proceed, she said.

Her first advice to aspiring young women scientists was always: “Follow your passion; have confidence in yourself because there’s different ways of having success. So I think there is an element of just figuring out what’s going to make it work for you – and there isn’t a sort of one-size-fits-all while being successful.”

Women were centrally involved in the Covid response in Ireland and the UK. Watts was a member of Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) while Smyth was a member of the Irish equivalent to Nphet (National Public Health Emergency Team). Scientists stepped up in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere and with female input there was a more effective collective response, they said.

They also highlighted the critical importance of a specific focus on women within the concept of “One Health” – ie the health of humans, animals, plants and the environment is inextricably linked and interdependent – requiring collaborative efforts from multiple disciplines working locally, nationally and globally to attain optimal outcomes.

Covid-19 had shown the global connectedness of health threats while climate change will undoubtedly pose a much greater risk in a similar context, Watts said. In the same way societies came together in responding to Covid, “we need to be able come together continually to be able to respond to the big threats that face us”.

The talents and skills of scientists were needed “to generate the science of solutions”, but collaboration with women scientists centrally involved and broader diversity would be critical to success.

Watts led groundbreaking research on tackling the determinants of HIV risk and became a global expert in violence prevention especially for women, but the big lessons from her career, she said, was the necessity to include women scientists. Their input combined with greater diversity “not only brings new ways of thinking but also shapes the type of questions and the issues that are considered”.

Separately, she hoped the urgency of imminent challenges, “will also inspire a greater number of women to enter and stay in science”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times