The science of equality

Professor Dame Carol Robinson, the first female professor of chemistry at Oxford University, talks to Robin Yapp about the important role of women in academia, and issues of gender equality in the field of science

Professor Dame Carol Robinson is the first female Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, having previously been the first woman in the same role at Cambridge University. She left school at 16 and later took a long career break to raise her three children, yet her pioneering work is helping to improve drug design for conditions from cancer to schizophrenia.

In March she was named the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science European Laureate for 2015. The programme has honoured 87 laureates globally since 1998 for excellence in science, including two who later won the Nobel prize.

Robin Yapp: What were your career ambitions when you left school and how did you achieve so much in the academic world having missed out on higher education?

Prof Robinson: I never planned a career in academia or science – it just happened. All I knew was I loved chemistry at school, so I decided I’d continue in science. I was encouraged to study for a degree part-time and was later accepted to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge. When I was appointed research professor at the University of Oxford, I felt I had achieved a career in science.

“The opportunities to present research, interact at conferences and carry out collaborations across the world are tremendously exciting.”

What is the significance, for a lay audience, of the work for which you’ve gained recognition from the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme?

I work on membrane protein complexes, which act as the gatekeepers to cells controlling the import and export of molecules in and out of cells. They can open and close and let the drug back out of the target cell, making it less efficient. The better we understand how these gatekeepers work, the better we can design drugs.

How does the programme advance the cause of women scientists? Can you envisage gender equality, meaning it’s no longer needed?

Programmes like this are helping to put women scientists on the world stage and celebrate their successes. They also encourage mentoring and I feel this is an important part of getting women to stay and progress in science. More programmes now exist to address this but there’s still a lot more we can do until there is gender equality in science.

You took an eight-year career break to start raising a family. What would you say to women who feel they have to choose between having a family and achieving their professional potential?

I’m often asked this and my answer is always the same: do what you feel is right for you. I have no regrets. Equally, I’ve seen women cope extremely well with balancing motherhood and academia. I’m a strong advocate of how flexible a career in science can be – don’t think of it as being stuck in the lab all day. The opportunities to present research, interact at conferences and carry out collaborations across the world are tremendously exciting.

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You’ve sometimes used unorthodox methods in your research. Have you ever felt your freedom to experiment has been restricted by outside pressures or perceptions?

No, I always felt confident in my work, but it was personal confidence I lacked. I felt my unconventional start was a huge disadvantage but my methods have paid off! As I get older, and maybe wiser, I’ve become less worried about what people think of me and more confident to say what I really think.

Are there still barriers to women advancing in science at leading UK universities and in the private sector? If so, what needs to change?

It’s very much still perceived as a man’s world and it really shouldn’t be. One of the main issues is the lack of role models. When I was young there were none, apart from the obvious Dorothy Hodgkin or Marie Curie. The long hours culture conflicts with family life and in my opinion this is the biggest perceived obstacle for women entering academia.