Exclusive interview of Elizabeth Blackburn

Elizabeth Blackburn, Laureate of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award, won a Nobel Prize in 2009 with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, in Medicine or Physiology. As the spokesperson of the digital campaign #ChangeTheNumbers, she answers the questions of DiscovHER about the results of the study that aims at highlighting the misconceptions of Europeans about women in science.

Q: What is your first reaction to the results of that European survey?

First, I think it is important that this survey was done, because it brings up to date the statistics on women in science, and provides good data for the situation.

The horizontal flatness of the lines during the critical periods that assess how excellent a women is – between bachelor, master’s and doctorate and “researcher” - this lack of drop-off of women attests to the excellence of women being as good as men. Because if they were not, the numbers for women during those periods, which is the time when they are being critically evaluated for their scientific excellence, would have shown a decrease. But in fact there is very little decrease during that overall period.

Q: How do you feel when you read that 89% of the people think that women have aptitudes "for everything except sciences"? What is your reaction when you read that 67% think that it is "the lack of abilities" that stops women from becoming high-level scientists?

Sadly, I was not surprised by most of the findings of this report, except for one part: the 89% and 67% of people surveyed who thought women do not have the same aptitude for science – that was shocking to me. Also shocking that it was so high a percentage of drops at high school and after the training period, even though I knew about the general trends.

Q: Do you have the feeling that you have had to fight more than a man would have to get recognition for your works?

I was able to have a good education and supportive teacher in my school, so I was fortunate in that respect but I did not feel I was as heard as men when I contributed to a discussion or contributed an idea in discussions. However, in society at large I felt that I was a fish out of water and that as a girl I was regarded as odd for wanting to be in science.

Q: When you began to work, have you had to cope with some sexist behaviour? Have you had some colleagues reluctant to work with a woman?

Once when I was more junior at a conference where I had just presented my research, I overheard a senior scientist remark that I was going about my quest for a new enzyme activity (what turned out to be telomerase, for the discovery of which I won the Nobel prize) " the wrong way” in his words, which I remembered because they made me pretty annoyed. I did not mention this to him because I was overhearing a remark he was making to a male colleague. Well, that senior scientist was proved wrong, because we discovered telomerase!

Q: To conclude, have you or your female colleagues met some special obstacles linked to your gender during your career? Do you have ideas of what could be done to fights against the gender biases? 

Yes, I notice that many female colleagues are vulnerable to such behaviors. Furthermore they felt they were not valued or respected for their research contributions by their colleagues in their home academic institution.

I think we have to continue to press the issue and continue to make waves and point out instances of bias and prejudice when they occur. Use the internet and social media to ridicule such undesirable and unfair behaviors of prejudice and bias – a new powerful weapon! But not the only one – keep persisting and pointing out the mistaken premise that women are not as good as men at science, but instead are living in a setting of bias (sometimes unconscious) and prejudice.

For Women in Science

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