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International Women’s Day 2022: three women in science share their stories

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

8 March 2022

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To reach our goal of beating cancer sooner we need diverse teams of the most talented researchers working together to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. Unfortunately, even though percentages of women in science have increased in nearly all fields over the last 10 years, women still face barriers to progressing to more senior roles.

For International Women’s Day, we spoke to three of our incredible researchers about their experiences as women in cancer research and what they think we need to do to secure the next generation of talented scientists.

Professor Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke

Professor Hodivala-Dilke is Deputy Institute Director at Barts Cancer Institute and a Professor of the Tumour Microenvironment. Her research focuses on improving how well chemotherapy and other cancer treatments work by understanding how the environment surrounding tumours contributes to their growth and interacts with cancer treatments.

When I first started in research, I remember being told that I need to stop ‘being a woman’ if I wanted to be a successful scientist – interestingly, it was a successful female scientist who told me that.  But I couldn’t accept that then and now most women won’t accept that.

In 1999, as a young principal investigator, I once attended a senior staff meeting and I was the only woman at the table. As such, I was expected to take the minutes and was excluded from the business discussion. It’s hard to really say how that made me feel.  I was insulted, angry and demoralised.  I remember thinking “if this is how it’s going to be, I might as well give up”.

At that time, there was no mechanism or system to even help women process this type of behaviour, let alone to give a woman the confidence to say something and stand up for herself.  It was a silent battle.  But that wouldn’t happen now, at least not where I work, and we need to make sure that women don’t accept that sort of behaviour anymore.

It’s not being aggressive, it just being fair and doing what’s right so that we can do our jobs. In those days, I remember keeping a small notebook of all those sorts of events. It was a way for me to deal with them privately. I don’t have a notebook like that anymore. I don’t need it.

Things have got much better than they used to be, but clearly there is still room for improvement.  The bias against women in science, unconscious or conscious, is eroding.

I have always had amazing scientists as my mentors – men and women – and they always saw through gender and race biases.  We need to make sure that good role models are always available for us.

My father always told me that “as a coloured person you will always have to work harder than everyone else”.  My mother told me that “as a woman, always be true to yourself and help others and the rest will learn and follow”.

The world is forever changing.  We need to make sure it keeps changing for the better, and we will.

Dr Emilia Lim

Dr Lim is a postdoc at the Crick Institute, studying cancer genomics and trying to understand how cancers evolve over time and what might influence them. She is currently working on a project looking to understand the causes of lung cancer in people who have never smoked. A year ago, she became a mother and worked through the challenges of returning to work during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, my postdoc advisor and lab mates were extremely excited and supportive of me having a baby. While it is difficult managing parental responsibilities and academic life simultaneously, I felt well supported by my advisor, lab mates and other mothers in the lab who were happy to provide me with opportunities and advice.

I have been incredibly blessed to have had mentors who understand the challenges gender bias brings and have looked out for me throughout my studies and my career. Over the years I have also encountered increasingly more women in science who have become role models for me and who continue to encourage me to achieve greater heights.

I am thankful to have been a beneficiary of great mentorship and guidance that has allowed me to be where I am today.  We need to continue to provide more encouragement to girls who would like to be part of STEM, and champion them every step of the way.

Professor Frances Balkwill OBE, FMedSci

Studio portrait of Frances Balkwill, made for the Living with Cancer exhibition, 2021.Professor Balkwill is a professor of cancer biology at Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London. Her research focuses on the link between inflammation and cancer, and how an understanding of cancer biology can lead to development of new treatments.

From my experience, one of the greatest changes has been support for working mothers. When I had my first child, I was due to speak at a conference six weeks after her birth while I was still breast feeding. My request to bring her and for accommodation for someone to look after her while I was at the conference was met with a refusal and the comment ‘if we let you bring your baby everyone will want to bring their children next year’. I prevailed though and took her to the conference – but it took a lot of argument.

In the last few years there have been improvements for scientists with shared parental leave. I would like to see a national survey of women scientists to see how this is working and what else would help women have successful careers in science while contributing to family life and child-rearing.

Michelle Mitchell:

Many of our female researchers are making incredible leaps; from people like Professor Vivian Li, who is growing mini organs using stem cells to demonstrate the effectiveness of new drugs, to Professor Thea Tlsty, who explores the complex role that inflammation in the tissue surrounding organs plays in 25% of cancer deaths worldwide.

But despite advances, women in research, like in many other sectors, still face barriers.

We will continue to fund world class research and set ambitious EDI targets on who applies and who receives funding from us in the future, because we want to see the best and broadest ideas on how we beat cancer for everyone – only by supporting women better will we achieve our mission.