On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we want to celebrate the amazing women working in science. The celebration could happen everyday but today especially, we are discussing and reflecting upon science and gender equality.

Across the wider field of science, women are still under-represented. According to data from the UN Scientific Education and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), fewer than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and approximately 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. However, the story at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) and SMRU Consulting is a little different to the norm, and that’s something we are really proud of. The Director of SMRU is a female (Professor Ailsa Hall), as is the Director of SMRU Consulting Europe (Dr Carol Sparling). The SMRU Marine Mammal Science Master’s course consistently trains and develops high-calibre female scientists, with many going on to be leaders in their respective fields. Within the SMRU Consulting Europe team we are predominantly female, proud to be led by a strong female helm.

The worldwide imbalance of female scientists has led to some open thought-provoking discussions amongst us at SMRU Consulting and SMRU. So, on this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we wanted to speak openly about how our gender has influenced our careers, and share some of our personal experiences as women in science:


I started my career in medical research and it was quite tough for women in that field in the 1980s.  A colleague was once introduced as being “a wife and mother as well as a scientist”!  But since moving from medicine to biology I have never felt that my gender was a barrier to the opportunities I have had.  Indeed, in our field now there are many women in early career posts, so let’s hope many are also able to reach the senior positions.

Professor Ailsa Hall, Director of SMRU


In my career as a biologist, I’ve been very lucky to develop and grow with a strong cohort of great women, in addition, the departments I’ve worked in have mostly had good representation of females in senior positions. St Andrews is particularly strong in that regard, with a female Director of SMRU, female heads of School, several female professors and a female Principal throughout a lot of my time here. I have been very lucky to have some very strong female role models, including my mum, who showed me that combining a high-achieving, professional career with a family and a  life outside of work was possible. I am also lucky to have also had some excellent male role models who always saw me as an individual and never made me even consider my gender.  I do think that wider society is still typically patriarchal and it is harder for women to juggle the competing demands of life outside of work, than it is for males. Policies need to change to enable greater individual choice and to allow greater flexibility to manage work with other outside responsibilities and demands, for example shared family leave, allowing a move away from traditional roles and attitudes.

Dr Carol Sparling, Technical Director of SMRU Consulting Europe


I believe representation is paramount and as an early career researcher, I am fortunate to work with strong female role models who inspire me to pursue a career in science. Whilst I believe there could be more support for women to return to work after having children, I feel positive about the progress academia has made over the last decade.

Izzy Langley, PhD student, SMRU


So far I have been fortunate to work in research groups that have been very inclusive. The only times I have experienced changes in attitudes towards women in science was during field work. Our team at the station of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study consists mainly of women, who don’t bat an eyelash when they carry heavy fuel tanks, navigate the boats into the harbour, or collect biopsy samples from whales. Visitors to the station seem surprised to see women doing such “tough” jobs, commenting on how strong we are and how well we all work together as a team (implying “despite being women”). One tourist nervously looked at my friend as she was about to reverse the pickup truck and trailer down a ramp and he offered her to do the reversing for her. She waved him off with one hand, telling him “I’ve got this”. 

Anna Schleimer, PhD student, SMRU


The culture at SMRU has always made me feel comfortable to share my views and that my opinion (scientific or otherwise) is welcomed and respected. I did the MSc in Marine Mammal Science here and found it particularly inspiring to see that many of the female alumni have progressed to be leaders in their respective fields. I currently work as a Research Assistant and feel lucky to be able to follow the example of the accomplished, female scientists that surround me.

Laura Palmer, Research Assistant, SMRU


I don’t feel like I have ever really experienced a gender gap in my education and career in marine mammal science. Many of my lecturers at Uni were female, my thesis supervisors were female, my fieldwork team leaders were female and I now work for a company that is predominantly female and led by a female. I don’t think that my gender has ever had any influence on my professional experiences or career progression.

Rachael Sinclair, Senior Scientist, SMRU Consulting


I was always encouraged by teachers and family to pursue a career in whatever I wanted, it just happened to be biology. I am grateful to my mentors, both women and men, who have always been supportive and have helped me get where I stand today. These are scientists that I look up to; I ignored those that were discouraging or assumed I wouldn’t succeed, and I put extra effort to prove them wrong. Science is for everyone, but we need to make sure it gets to everyone.

Dr Mònica Arso Civil, Research Fellow at SMRU


I think the issue is having more diversity in science. Like all fields, the more diverse the voices, the better the solution and the design to finding it. Listening to people of different genders and backgrounds provides us with new ideas for approaching problems that one does not have access to when approaching a problem with a group of colleagues with similar ethnicity, culture, etc. I think the issue is having more diversity period.

Dr Charlotte Dunn, Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews


* Mothers, fathers and children

The university and the world around us still needs to shift the view about family responsibilities to young children. Enshrined in law and in institutional policies at the moment is the idea that it is *only* women who require appreciable amounts of parental leave. The world will actually take a big step towards equal opportunities when men are expected (and allowed) to also spend time at home with pre-school children, such that the ‘hit’ to the career of father and mother is similar. Children need time with their fathers, and fathers need that time with their kids. 

* Some thoughts on communications and discussions in meetings…

There is still sometimes an attitude in some academics that it is a good idea to interrupt female colleagues in meetings, and explicitly contradict them – often before they have time to develop a complete argument! However, I see that this is changing, and feel extremely lucky to work in a place where there are wonderful colleagues, men and women, with whom it is so easy to have effective, logical, constructive discussions about science. That is by far and increasingly the norm. Thank goodness. 

* And moving a bit beyond issues of gender

The world is a connected environment in which species interact across national boundaries – and so, as scientists, must we. Our workplace is gloriously multi-cultural and allows many colleagues from different backgrounds and nations to work together. This is something we should not be complacent about (because it is so very difficult for some of our colleagues in low income countries to access the resources they need) – but we should be proud of what we’ve achieved here, and especially proud of our students who show us the way in forging friendships across the world, that continue into their future careers. 

Dr Sophie Smout, Lecturer, SMRU


I am very proud to be surrounded by so many exceptional female colleagues and strong female leaders. It’s important to celebrate our workplace full of female scientist mentors, colleagues, students and friends, as well as the opportunities that we’ve had, collectively, to work and travel all over the world. Hopefully, our presence and visibility across different levels within the Unit, and different specialties within our discipline, will be encouraging for the next generation of young women who pursue careers in marine mammal science as their opportunities continue to grow.

Dr Joanna Kershaw, Post-doctoral Research Assistant at SMRU


Women in science come in all different colours, talents and voices; embracing our diversity and drawing from each our unique strengths will help us achieve real inclusion in science and beyond. 

Dr Saana Isojunno, Research Fellow at SMRU


As a child I was gifted Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ by my mother (a botanist). The book is a magical combination of “scientific knowledge and poetic writing” that helped to launch the environmental movement. My mother and Rachel gave me a passion for learning about the natural environment and guided me to pursue a career in marine mammal science. They fought to forge an easier path into science for future women. Inspirational doesn’t begin to cover it! #SDG5

Vanessa Simons, PhD student at the University of St Andrews


During my education and career, I have been mainly mentored by males, though one anecdote comes into my mind that is quite female specific: I had a written Chemistry exam during my second year of studying at Muenster University, and the results were published on a black board. I was searching for my name, and a chemistry student looked at those names hitting 100% – all correct. He said “oh, how surprising, there is a BIOLOGY student amongst the ones with 100%, and it’s even a WOMAN!”. The woman was me. 

Dr Ursula Verfuss, Principal Scientist at SMRU Consulting


Throughout my career in marine mammal science I have been mentored and managed by strong female scientists, who have been warm, friendly and encouraging. I feel lucky to have benefited from such great female role models, and to work within an organisation where gender isn’t a barrier to career progression. I do think for some sciences and institutions there is still an imbalance in the higher roles, but hopefully this is more of a generational gap and in the coming years we should see more women in the senior roles.

Emily Hague, Project Scientist at SMRU Consulting


I have always found that working with other women in science to be a supportive, sensitive and highly rewarding experience. There’s a sense of “being in it together” and that makes the hard parts of the job that little bit easier.

Dr Theoni Photopoulou, Newton International Fellow at the University of St Andrews


I typically view being a woman in science as an extra headache that I have to deal with on occasion. However, one of the things I’ve been thrilled to see is how labs are pushing change, not by pressuring the more sensitive among us to “grow a thicker skin [don’t get me started]”, but by placing value on traditionally “feminine” attributes such as kindness and compassion. I’ve worked with people across the gender spectrum and have been amazed by the support, compassion, and empathy I’ve seen lately particularly among cisgender men. 

Dr Kaitlin Palmer, SMRU Consulting Canada


Just some of the many great women in science at SMRU and SMRU Consulting


To continue with the Women and Girls in Science theme, we are really pleased to advertise and send an open invitation to Professor Ailsa Hall’s inaugural lecture “The No. 1 Ladies Disease Detective Agency; from mortuaries to marine mammals” on Wednesday 12th February 2020 at 5.15 pm in School III, St Salvator’s Quadrangle, St Andrews, followed by a reception in Lower College Hall. The lecture is open to the public, and all are welcome.

Further, the School of Biology Equality and Diversity Committee have invited Princeton biologist Prof Mary (Cassie) Stoddard to give the 2020 Women and Girls in Science Public Lecture. The Extraordinary World of Birds and their Eggs” will describe Cassie’s groundbreaking research into animal colouration and patterning, and the evolution of eggs, plumage and camouflage. This will be given in The Byre Theatre on March 16th and is open to the public.

For an enlightening and thought-provoking read from Professor Sascha Hooker’s on how to balance privacy with being an honest and open role model, click here. Professor Hooker is the Chair of the School of Biology Equality and Diversity Committee within the University of St Andrews, and deserves recognition for her hard work to remove bias and barriers from the School of Biology.