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Nobody puts a woman in a corner, not even in academia: a conversation with Professor Paola Dazzan

Pursuing an academic career is tough.

It requires hard work, a considerable dose of self-confidence and an even greater amount of perseverance.

I am at the very beginning of this journey, and yet, sometimes, I have felt out of place and ill-equipped for the academic world. It has been a very subtle feeling, but intense enough to make me wonder whether I had made the right choice or if I will be able to pursue it.

It has taken me a while to realise that some of these moments of doubt have to do with my being a woman.

That was until one day, when I decided to have a conversation with Paola Dazzan.

Paola (there is a picture of the two of us at the end of this blog) is Professor in Neurobiology of Psychosis at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, where she is also a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Team, actively promoting inclusion among underrepresented groups.

I asked Paola about her experience as a woman in academia and, after our chat, I realised that other women also feel uncomfortable, from time to time, in this job.

In fact, it happens to a lot of people, regardless of gender. But the problem is particularly acute for women. On a more positive note, there are many initiatives currently ongoing to change this unconscious cultural bias against women.

When speaking to Paola I felt very inspired and I wanted to share my interview with you all!


Since 2013, Paola has been actively involved in the Athena SWAN initiative. This is a charter that was launched in 2005 by the Equality Challenge Unit to recognise the commitment of institutions that promote careers of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) in academia.

King’s College London has held a Bronze Institutional award, for its commitment to gender equality, since 2008, which was renewed in 2013. In 2014, King’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience — where we all work — was awarded the Athena SWAN Silver Award for its work in promoting initiatives that help advance the achievements of women.

As part of the work conducted at the Institute, Paola has been particularly involved in addressing the gender pay gap.

Personally, before our talk, I did not really know much about the pay gap, and I’m sure I am not alone in this. From our chat I learnt that the gender pay gap is the difference in the average hourly wage between men and women across a workforce. For example, if women do more of the less well-paid jobs compared with men, the pay gap is usually bigger.

Me: Paola, what is the reason underpinning the gender pay gap?

Paola: An explanation often given is that women are less inclined to negotiate their salary with their bosses. But a recent study conducted in Australia has highlighted that there is no difference in how often men and women try to negotiate their salaries. So, a woman’s reluctancy to discuss salary does not appear to be a significant factor, or the only factor, when it comes to explaining the pay gap.

The truth is that, although women may negotiate as much as their male counterparts, they are less successful in their outcomes.

Me: So why is this?

Paola: There are certainly many reasons. Interestingly, a common stereotype of women in the workplace is that women are collaborative, nurturing and always fulfilling their tasks. When they present with a more confident approach, for example when they try to negotiate money, they do not fit that stereotype and they may be considered unexpectedly aggressive.

This seems to be supported by evidence from studies that have looked at reference letters, where women were found to be usually described as precise, collaborative, hard workers, whereas men were more commonly depicted as with strong leadership skills.

Me: Do you think this stereotype is one of the main challenges that women in science face?

Paola: This is one, and there are many more challenges that face them at the moment.

First of all, in science, women are less represented in senior roles and in mentoring positions.

Moreover, studies indicate that conference organizers often do not consider women when putting together lists of speakers to be invited to meetings. Here, women can also be part of the problem though, as they too are not immune to cultural bias. When there are opportunities, such as speaking at conferences or leading on funding applications, women are also sometimes more reluctant to put themselves forward.

Instead, women should be more comfortable with taking the chance to do something that they have never done before! This means promoting awareness among women that they can and should get what they deserve.

Unfortunately, many of us tend to think that working hard is enough to be rewarded and noticed one day, so we do not put ourselves forward enough.

Something easy to note at conferences or talks is the way men promote their work, we can notice that they often say “I”, (“I had the funding for this study, I have shown that…”), while women often say “WE” (“we have done, or we have shown”) or they attribute their success to luck (“I was lucky to be part of this study”).

It is clear that in order to be successful, women need to gain more awareness of their abilities and trust themselves more, and learn how to catch opportunities, without necessarily changing who they are.

Another interesting dynamic that I think often prevents women from speaking at meetings is that they tend to be interrupted while they talk. So, not only should women learn how to keep talking when interrupted, but also, as women, we should take the initiative to intervene and help our women colleagues when we witness this.

Some other times what women say in a meeting is ignored until a man makes the same point. Just pay attention and see how often this happens. I used to laugh about this with my coach from the NIHR Leadership training I had at Ashridge.

And this is so common that one day she sent me this comical card:

Me: What do you think women can do in order to change this situation?

Paola: There is lots more that women can do.

For instance, choose a good mentor who can help in networking. Conferences often have a predominance of men, who may tend to team up together and can make you feel like a stranger. A good mentor can help you meet with people and establish a connection. Unfortunately, our cultural system still tends to naturally favour men. The best way to change it is from the inside.

Some years ago, I became Chair of the Programme Committee for the SIRS (Schizophrenia International Research Society) Conference. Among the criteria to select symposia proposals, we asked for the symposia to be diverse, in terms of gender, level of seniority and country of origin of the speakers. Indeed, until that moment many symposia proposals included male speakers only.

With the new rules, our 2019 conference has had, for the first time, the same number of female and male speakers, and many more young, mid-career speakers, than ever before!

It has taken time, but change has started to come through.

Me: Is there anything that Athena SWAN can do in order to increase people’s awareness of the problem and to gradually change their point of view?

Paola: Yes, there are several ongoing initiatives, such as trainings on unconscious bias and diversity.

People in academia are encouraged to have these trainings, and this is now mandatory for certain academic staff, particularly if they sit in appointment panels or executive boards.

Another initiative is the Step into leadership, a 6 months programme aiming to prepare women, who are on their pathway to become leaders, to be ready to take on this role.

We can also monitor gender balance in committees and events, like the King’s Parade of stars that celebrates staff and students’ research.

There is a clear imbalance in our academic environment when it comes to the presence of women. There are many of them at the early career stage but far more less in senior roles.

So when do we lose them? Often they leave after the PhD, because this is a time when they may decide to have children, and is then more difficult to come back and be competitive again for fellowship applications for example. This is why fellowships for women who want to come back have now been created, or years-from-PhD limit eliminated, to help them to get into the system again.

Me: Talking about you, Paola, what is your personal motivation to address gender equality?

Paola: Well, I come from a family where there was never any role discrimination based on gender.

My parents have always told me that I could achieve whatever I wanted if I worked for it, and this always made me go ahead in my life.

And it took me a while to realise that there are inequities, also in the academic world that I joined. So, when in 2013 I saw the opportunity to become lead for Athena SWAN in the Biomedical Research Center, I took the chance and I soon realised how much work is there to do.

Me: Did you have models of important women inspiring you during your life?

Paola: I have had several models, both men and women. My parents, first of all, always conveyed to me the message that I should not accept an unfair system and that respect for your job and your dignity are very important.

There have been also many men and women in history, who fought for the right to vote, and for race equality, and I find what they did very inspiring. In general, I think I have had a puzzle of positive and strong examples in my life.

Pictures from 1) Pinterest, 2) PNAS, 3) Wiki, 4) Messiah, 5) WMKY - From top left: Marie Curie, Rita Levi Montalcini, 2 suffragettes. From bottom left: Martin Luther King, Madeleine Albright

Me: It is also true that a lot of men support and value women, so we are not talking about a “gender battle”, but about people that accept and respect diversity in general.

Paola: Indeed, and I have been privileged to have worked with many men who value diversity and push it forward.

And there are also wrong models of women, sometimes those who have struggled to gain positions of power and fame, and may believe that every woman should go through the same difficulties. I always think about what the first female Secretary of State in the U.S., Madeleine Albright, said in keynote speech in 2006: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women."

The truth is that a society that values women is better for everybody. Men have wives, daughters, nieces, so it is in everybody’s interest that they all have the opportunity to shine and that our culture values diversity, not only in gender.

That is why this is not only a women’s cause.

Me: What would you tell women to encourage them to pursuit a career in academia?

Paola: I would tell them that if this is what they love, they can do it.

I would tell all women who want to have a career in academia to look around and speak to women who did it, and to men who are sensitive to these challenges.

Because it is possible.


Me: I think that one of the issues of our culture is to combine our career and our personal life. What do you think about woman who struggle to find the right balance?

Paola: I would tell them to be careful, as the risk is to be disadvantaged in two ways. The first is that a career in academia is tough anyway, for everybody. The second one, especially for women, is about the pressure coming from our society. Women should do what they want, not what society wants. If a woman wants to be with her family and take care of her home and children, she should do it; if she also wants to be a scientist, she should do it as well.

In my job as consultant in the perinatal services, I often see many mothers suffering because of what society has imposed them to be, in both implicit and explicit ways.

There are many possibilities for women to manage time and commitments by sharing responsibilities with their partners. I know many male colleagues who share equally the care of their children with their wives; some men work part-time for a while to help their partners advancing in their career while raising up children. This is all positive.

And I agree with Paola, as there are many things we women are passionate about, and many we excel at: from art to science, from writing to engineering, from management to teaching. And if we are good at something, we should invest our energy and time in just doing it.

When I feel out of place in the academic world, because somebody makes me feel like that, I then remind myself that this is what I like doing and what I decided to do, although other people’s expectations were pushing me towards other directions.

And in the end, I will prove that I was right and they were wrong. Thank you, Paola!

Paola Dazzan (left) with Maria Antonietta Nettis (right)


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