Professor Uta Frith in conversation: Women’s Week in Neuroscience, 2020

Writer: Ellie Jackson
Editor: Karolay Lorenty

“I was never destined to be a scientist”, was not the way one would expect a professor of cognitive neuroscience to start their talk. However, Professor Frith was wonderfully candid in disclosing her past; born to two artists and initially educated in history of art, she described her start in psychology as a “freak accident”.

Uta Frith is now widely recognised as a seminal leader on research in autism and dyslexia, holding chair of the Royal Society’s diversity committee. She is also the co-founder of the UCL women’s network, making her more than qualified to discuss women in science. Starting her career in the 60’s in London, gender stereotypes, particularly in science, were still very strong. Armed with a pencil and paper she powered through her PhD, describing her supervisors Neil O’Connor and Beate Hemmelin to be “her two avengers”, and her husband being her greatest influence. One thing Frith emphasised was that women and men need to be more collaborative; we cannot overcome gender discrimination by starting a war on men. The problem that seemed to plague her most during her career was that of starting a family; she described having her two sons as “leading a double life”, finding a serious professional career and family difficult to balance. She even went as far  as to recommend that any female scientist with a family should get a nanny; such childcare is what she spent the majority of her early wages on. 

Being a woman in science is difficult, as it can mean leading a double life, but Professor Frith does believe that there has been progress. She believes the Athena Swan programme has been an essential step to facilitating inclusivity in science. Athena Swan is a UK charter that recognises current practices in higher education to advance gender equality. They publish regular reports and research, and issue awards to establishments for good practices. This is one of the first steps towards gender equality: building a framework that could also  benefit other minorities that are discriminated against in the academic community. 

Despite her initial statement, it is clear that Professor Frith is enamoured by science. She describes a good scientist as someone who can see the cause greater than themselves, who is collaborative, can accept failure and is not afraid to be wrong.

Frith believes in taking a new approach to science – slow science, where academics would only publish one academic paper per year. “Less, but better”, she said, with a glint in her eye. This is particularly poignant given how women taking time out for children face an immediate disadvantage in research, something professor Frith experienced herself. As science continues to move faster and faster, it is so easy to just blink and miss things. Her last words were “Science needs more time to think, to read, and to fail before running to a publisher with data”; a sentiment that would benefit the whole scientific community, but especially women.

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