Women in science Q&A - Professor Sheila Rowan

Written by Staff Reporter on 15 November 2017 in Inside Politics

Sheila Rowan was appointed Scotland’s Chief Scientific Adviser in 2016, the third woman in a row to hold the role

Professor Sheila Rowan was part of the team which made breakthrough discoveries in gravitational waves. 

What barriers did you face going into science growing up, and how did you overcome them?

I was very fortunate to have parents who actively encouraged me to study science right from primary school onwards, so I actually didn’t feel barriers growing up. I was encouraged from a young age to follow my interests, and I think that gave me a confidence that carried me through my studies.

The Scottish Government has recognised women in science as an untapped resource, but what barriers remain?

Wider cultural mores and assumptions still can come together to create an environment where women choosing science is not perceived as a norm – overcoming that external and pervasive pressure is, I suspect, one of the hardest challenges (and one where, as above, I think I had a lucky start). Even in the best of situations, unconscious bias can still mean that women can be disadvantaged in their career in ways that are totally unintended but nonetheless real.

Do you see yourself as a role model or pioneer, and what advice would you give a young woman entering science today?

The advice I would give is to always follow your interests and your instincts. People will give you lots of advice (asked for and sometimes unasked for)…listen to it all and then do exactly what you think the right thing to do is. That way you will never regret your choices because they will be your choices. I have found working in science to be enormously satisfying and fulfilling and I would wish that option to be open to everyone who would like to choose it.

Can you think of a moment in your career where you have felt undermined or patronised because you are a woman?

Sadly I can think of more than one, but as an example, standing at a conference registration desk and having to explain that I wasn’t someone’s wife or accompanying person – I was there to register as a conference delegate. 

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