Cambridge & diversity

Nancy Lane: a WiSE women

Nancy LaneNancy Lane was the founding Director of the Women in Science and Engineering Initiative (WiSETI) at the University of Cambridge, which she helped to establish in 1999; since 2007 she has been a Consultative Director. A successful cell biologist she has combined her research with an active College career as well as raising her family. Nancy was the Chair of the report entitled the Rising Tide (1994) published by the Cabinet Office, which looked at women's progression in science, engineering and technology (SET) subjects. She was involved in founding the Athena Project in 1999 and was its Chair from 2002 to 2007. In 2002, Nancy co-wrote the SET Fair Report, which led to the establishment of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology.

Why did you come to Cambridge?

Whilst a student in Nova Scotia in Canada, I won a scholarship to go to Oxford University to study for a D.Phil. It was a wonderful opportunity and the experience changed my life. After completing my D.Phil, I went on to do post-doctoral research in New York and then at Yale University in New Haven. When I completed this, I was keen to come back to the UK. There were few positions available in Cambridge but a new unit was being set up here in the Zoology Department and I obtained a position in it. I thought it would be as wonderful here as it was in Oxford in the sense of it being a fantastic opportunity to do research in a world class research centre. Additionally its proximity to London was particularly appealing—I loved the theatre, the art galleries—and, similarly, Cambridge is relatively close to the Continent—Italy, France, all those wonderful countries. I have been here now for 42 years.

How have you developed your career whilst you have been at Cambridge?

Initially I won a research fellowship at Girton College which was then transformed into a full fellowship when it was discovered that as a cell biologist I would be useful for teaching. The biology of cells course is a complicated course; you have to be able to understand the structure of cells and the complexities of cell development, but also a certain amount of genetics and biochemistry. At that time, not many people could teach the whole year's material, but I was able to do so.

As a research scientist, publication is hugely important. Beyond the research, I also participated in many different committees which helped me to discover about projects and policies within the University. I was also the tutor for graduate students in science and engineering which gave me the opportunity to meet many bright and talented individuals with some of whom I am still in contact.

But publishing is the big thing. Publish or perish, as you know, is the maxim, but it is true. It is critical to establish yourself as a scientist and publishing in recognised journals is an important step in realising this. I have been fortunate to have been invited to many conferences over the years and then invited to universities around the world to give lectures. I became well known for developing new fine structural techniques using the electron microscope. I was invited to go to Venezuela, Brazil, Italy and various other countries to teach these techniques, to interact and to collaborate with the scientists there. As a result of these experiences, I have been invited to sit on editorial panels, and on committees for UNESCO, the Wellcome Trust and the British Science Association, which is an organisation that promotes public understanding and awareness of the sciences and engineering. I have also worked with the British Council and have been around the world promoting both my research and encouraging women to enter careers in SET.

How did you manage your career and having a family?

Science and engineering are interesting intellectually. I believe science and engineering offer particularly wonderful careers. They are very social and one is able to travel the world, presenting one's ideas. Balancing the family and the career was tricky. When the children were young, I would spend time with them and when I had put them to bed I would then be writing my papers in the evening. The weekends I tended to be with the children, which may have put me at a disadvantage with respect to people who could work at all times. But this was what I wanted. Being a working mother, the big drawback is being totally dependent on childcare. If your childminder cancels for whatever reason, your entire day's plans have to be changed. However, I was fortunate in that I could be flexible in my hours which enabled me to meet deadlines and enjoy family life.

10 years on, do you think WiSETI is still relevant?

Yes. There has clearly been some impact. In fact, its continued existence, the profiling of women, and the ongoing conferences and events, demonstrate that there is interest in and support for, the project. Schemes like Springboard, and the linking of other organisations and groups into a network that supports women is positive. Having women from these, and other organisations, talking to undergraduates at the University is helpful in raising awareness of possible careers for young women.

I do not agree with positive discrimination. Nobody should be appointed if they are not up to the job just because they are, for example, a woman. However, initiatives that encourage women to believe in themselves can be useful in supporting people coming through the pipeline by raising awareness of possible careers for them.

The existence of WiSETI has been an example to other universities and has helped to shape strategic thinking, for example, the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. It is important for people to know that government is backing these initiatives because it encourages all people, including men, to come and listen to the arguments and participate. Awards, like the ones given by the Athena Swan Charter, help to encourage institutions to pay attention to how their organisations work to include women and other under-represented groups. They provide a useful incentive to do the right thing. WiSETI has long term goals. It may take twenty years or more to see the impact of the project and even then it may be difficult to link outcomes specifically to the Initiative.

What role do you believe women in senior positions have to play in addressing equalities issues?

I think it is important that senior women encourage young women coming up behind them. It is important to give them a helping hand. This occurs with men quite often—where senior men often encourage younger men to apply for opportunities. However, this happens rather rarely with women. We need to encourage our young female colleagues to apply and put their names forward for awards in order to increase their profile, recognition and confidence. It is down to all of us to help this happen and recognise our responsibilities in this respect.