Who Really Gets to Be a Scientist? An Interview with Angela Saini

Does it now take three or four minutes to race up to the moon? Is that really important? Or should science be used for what we actually need in order to pursue human development, such as finding new ways to produce crops, combat climate change, and so on? Because how realistic is it really for someone, who had to work themselves up from the very bottom, to get funding for a flying race car? Unless your name is Elon Musk, the odds are terrible and incredibly unfair. And this shouldn’t be the case. Regardless of socio-economic background, or gender, or race. Everyone can be a scientist. So what is stopping us?

Last Monday, I was sitting in my maths seminar when this guy suddenly told me that women are biologically less capable of logical thinking than men. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But if this is what society still believes, I’m afraid we have a very long way to go.

Zooming in from across the Atlantic ocean, I met with award-winning science journalist, author and broadcaster Angela Saini to discuss how social class is reflected in scientific research. Specifically how it affects equality in the workplace and who really gets to be a scientist. Together we investigate how class, race and gender all affect the social construct of what it means to study science, and what you can do to “make it” in the scientific world.

Tell us a bit about your background. You’ve achieved an impressive amount of two master’s thesis, one in engineering, the other one in science and security. What started your scientific career?

Well, my dad had done engineering at university and for some of his career, he was an engineer. So I think that was probably instrumental in me doing the same thing. I loved making things when I was growing up; I didn’t have dolls, so I instead played with Meccano and Lego. Also I love maths; I was just obsessed with how perfect to me the world of maths was: it was a truly objective world. I was also lucky enough to grow up in a very egalitarian family; I have two sisters, I don’t have any brothers. We were always supported and made to feel that there was nothing that could stop us from doing what we’re doing. There was one thing my parents did say though, as immigrants who moved to the UK in the late 70s, just before I was born, and that was that I have to work 10 times harder than everybody else because of my race. And I did, I just worked a lot harder. And that’s how I got to where I did. 

What about the school you attended?

I went to a state school. It was a grammar school, but it didn’t have a long tradition of sending kids to Oxbridge. I was the only person in my year who went to Oxford or Cambridge, which is a tragedy, really, because there were a lot of very, very bright kids in my class. But because of the area maybe, and because it wasn’t the best school, we didn’t get a lot of support. I think some of them didn’t reach the potential they could have if they had been supported. My family supported me more than school ever could.

After finishing your first degree, you decided to go into journalism instead of staying in academia. Statistically, women are less likely to pursue a PhD in STEM subjects than their male counterparts. What do you think led to you going in that direction after university?

Well, to be honest, I don’t see careers as feminine or masculine. I think there is nothing about any career that should be necessarily gendered; the way that we gender is a cultural thing. And when I was growing up, I didn’t think of engineering as a boys thing. I didn’t enter it thinking, this is something I would be less likely to do because I’m a girl. It never even came into my head until I got to university and saw how few girls were in my department. And the same with journalism. I didn’t enter journalism thinking, this is a more feminine thing to do at all. That never occurred to me. And certainly there is a lot of sexism in media. So I saw that for myself as much as women might be much better represented in the media than they are in engineering. There’s a huge degree of sexism and racism there, and I encountered that my whole life.

One of your most famous books, Inferior, discusses the effect of sexism on scientific research and how it affects social beliefs. How come you started this writing process?

Well, I had just come off maternity leave after having my son, and an editor newspaper asked me to write about menopause. Until then, my science writing career had been mainly physical sciences and engineering, so I was writing about other technical subjects, not really about biology, or human sciences. But I took on that assignment because I’d come off maternity leave, and I just needed to get whatever work I could. And that really got me into thinking about the ways in which science is gendered, how the perspective of the researcher affects the kind of work that they do. And the myths and misconceptions that scientists have perpetuated through their work.

How much would you say class affects how women are viewed in the scientific world? 

Well, I think it’s important to remember that class plays out in subtle and complex ways. Historically, working class women have always worked. The question is, what status are women given in the work that they do and what prospect is there for promotion and other things and class plays into that; there’s no doubt that class has influenced which women have been able to enter university and which ones haven’t, and who has been able to move through their careers more quickly.

The choices that we make are influenced by the class that we have; like I said, I went to state school. And constantly, we were expected to revise down our expectations for ourselves: 

“don’t aim high, don’t dream high. That was the constant message.” 

And that is one of the ways in which class plays out in career choices: you are constantly being told that you can’t do something because it’s not for the likes of you. 

That this is beyond your ambitions or expectations, beyond your kind of exposure to contacts, who you can reach out to when you’re looking for a job. I didn’t have anyone! I didn’t have any contacts when I entered the workforce, the only jobs I’ve ever had are ones I’ve applied for, whereas other people I knew had contacts in the media, their parents or their friends or family knew people. I didn’t know anybody. 

So I think in those ways, and culturally, as well; I remember going to university, and it was a real culture shock for me, because that was a world I was not used to, I had to get used to it over time and become comfortable with it over decades, it has taken me. So in all those different ways, class is the mediator between people and the world around them, and determines, quite fundamentally I think, what careers they do and how far they’ll go.

You said that in your high school you weren’t expected to go very far. Do you think that science is one of those subjects where people might think “this won’t get me anywhere”? Do you think that this prejudice still exists, especially in lower classes – is science regarded as something that only people who already can sustain themselves should entertain?

I think it’s really about being strategic about the choices that you make; when you’re at school and you know that you don’t have much money at home to rely on, you know that you will need to be earning for yourself sooner rather than later, and naturally, you’re going to make career choices for yourself that will get you to that point as quickly as possible. And science in that sense, or more generally academia, is a bit of a gamble sometimes for some people, because it is not very well paid in the early years. And it’s precarious – you may have to move to some other parts of the world!

There are loads of different reasons why people feel that it’s not a financially or economically safe world for them to enter. And I can completely empathise with that. I was making those calculations myself as I was thinking about what careers I wanted to do. One of the reasons I chose engineering, again, and one of the reasons my dad did it, is because it’s lucrative. It’s a really bankable degree. And this is also what I tell women and minorities when I go to schools: engineering is a great degree to have, if you need to earn money, if you want to have a career that’s economically lucrative, because it’s just great that way.

But I don’t think all of the sciences feel that way. Certainly, like the theoretical sciences, academia does not feel that way. And that is one of the issues, which is why I lobby so hard when I do University talks! I say to people: if you really care about diversity, then fund scholarships, just go into schools and say, “if you really want to do this, we will fund you to do this”. We’ll make it easy for you, we’ll give you a job at the end, we’ll guarantee something for you. Because I think that would help a lot more students to feel that this is something that they can do.

When you say you go to schools, where do you think is the big fall off? What age do you think is the crucial moment in a child’s development before they attend university, before they choose their subjects, to choose the path of science?

I hesitate in saying that all children should be told “pursue whatever you want”. Because I’d love to live in a world in which that were the best choice for everybody, but it obviously isn’t. As long as there is discrimination, and abuse within certain industries, then you have to be honest with students and say, those barriers do exist, while at the same time encouraging them to do it. But I think the most important thing is that employers put their money where their mouth is; they fund students to pursue careers that they want to pursue from minority and less advantaged backgrounds. Because when it comes to the crunch, that’s often when you come from a lower socio economic background, and your first thought is: is this going to be financially sustainable for me?

You have two master’s degrees. Obviously, each degree costs money, especially here in the UK it’s not very well funded. A lot of students already struggle to pay for their bachelor’s and so they go straight into work after graduating in order to pay off their student loan. How vital do you think those extra degrees (postgraduate and research) are in today’s scientific workplace? Does this make science even less accessible to lower-class backgrounds?

I think it depends on the course. I had a student loan, but the fees were very low at that time. 

You know, I’m still paying off my student loan, but it was perfectly financially feasible, luckily, because I had that loan and the fees were so low that I could do that. 

My other Master’s, I did much later. And I did it part time while I was working full time. So I did it over two years. I paid for it through the work that I was doing full time, and even though that was difficult, it’s not impossible. So I would say if you are finding it financially tricky, and you do want to do another degree, another Master’s, then I would say it can be intellectually so fulfilling. It was so important to me. It made a huge difference to my career. 

You say science can be incredibly lucrative. Certainly, we’ve all heard of people like Elon Musk and their latest space exploration. Do you think that science nowadays has this slightly extravagant connotation, setting it apart from what we really need as a society? 

There’s room for everything. There have always been Mavericks in science. And I think there should always be space for them. And then there’s a lot of people who enter the sciences because they want to make a difference to the world and make the world better. And there should also be space for them. We also have to remember that sometimes things that feel like they don’t help human development in the short term can actually have a huge impact on human development in the long term. So for example, in Geek Nation, I wrote about India’s space programme, which at the time was seen as completely frivolous and expensive. In a country that had so many pressing economic problems, it was seen as unnecessary. But in fact, that space programme is what helped India launch satellites, which in turn popped up its amazing IT industry later on. So all that work that was done, that was once described as frivolous and unnecessary, actually became a big plank in India’s scientific and economic development later on.

So all research is useful in the end. But do you think that people from a higher socio-economic background end up being multimillionaires researching big things, whereas people who are more down to earth come from lower social backgrounds? Or can everyone dream big? 

I think everyone should be able to dream big. Be allowed to dream big. The difference is that for people who are wealthier to begin with, their dreams are their ambitions. For the rest of us, they’re just dreams. And it’s very rare, but it does happen, that some of us manage to see those dreams come true. And I would never say to anyone “don’t dream big because it’s never going to happen to you”. Because I have been told that, and had I believed those people, then I wouldn’t be where I am now. So I’m glad that I didn’t listen to those people who told me not to dream big, and I’m glad that I did. It’s hard. It’s harder. There’s no doubt, but people do make it.

And do you have any advice for young students, especially women and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, on how to “make it”? 

“Number one, don’t internalise other people’s doubts about you.”

Believe in yourself and keep hold of that, whatever everybody else says. 

For me, one of the important things in my career has been to always recognise your self worth; don’t allow yourself to put up with bad behaviour. And if that means leaving, however painful and difficult that might be, then remember that’s always your strongest card: you can always leave. And I know that’s harder in some circumstances than others. But I’ve done it myself.

Just to finish, I know that one of your new projects is working on the origins of patriarchy. Can you tell me a bit more about that? 

It’s not finished yet, it will be finished this summer and out next year, so I hope people get a chance to read it then. But I’ve really tried hard to make it a work that doesn’t just look at patriarchy through a gender lens, but looks at it through all the different things we’ve just talked about: race, caste, class, all of that, because I think that’s the most important way to understand any system of inequality, but particularly patriarchy.