An Interview with Prof. Monica Berry by Prof. Bindu A Bambah and Ms. G S Chayadevi (Centre for Women Studies, UoH).

Prof. Monica Berry

Prof. Monica Berry, Senior lecturer at the Centre for Nano-Science and Quantum Information (NSQI), University of Bristol, U.K., visited the University of Hyderabad, along with her husband, the renowned physicist Professor Sir Michael Berry.

She is a biologist, who works using techniques from physics. In her own words, she works on “long slimy polymers” or mucins.  In view of the fact that she has worked in three different educational systems– the Rumanian, the Israeli and the English system, we thought that her perception on women in science would be interesting to illustrate how different societal and political attitudes differ in their gender perspective.

Prof. Monica Berry (formerly Saiovici) received her high school education in Rumania, when it was still in the Soviet Bloc. After doing her B.Sc and M.Sc from Tel-Aviv University, she shifted to Bristol, U.K., where she did her Ph.D.  Initially, she worked in close collaboration with clinicians-as her laboratory was in the Eye Hospital, at Bristol, before shifting to the Centre for Nano-Science and Quantum Information (NSQI) at the University of Bristol.

Q1. It is proposed by many feminist thinkers, such as Evelyn Fox Keller and Sandra Harding that the scientific method is biased and that men and women have different ways of doing science. Do you think that this is true?

Ans:   When I do science, I do it by using the accepted scientific method. I take data, analyze data, make an inference and test a hypothesis.  It has nothing to do with gender. What I think is that the difference is more often in time management.  Men can devote all their time to science, while women have to share their time between family and work, because of societal pressures. Therefore, they lag behind men in career progression, but not because they do science in a different way.

Q2. Do you think that within science, the fact that more women do life sciences and chemistry rather than physics or mathematics, is a reflection of their innate ability, societal attitudes or training? 

Ans:  It is true that many more women go for life sciences than for physics or mathematics. I feel that they have the same innate ability for scientific training as men. To some extent, the development of this ability depends on their early educational training. It has been my perception, that in the U.K, girls from same sex schools feel freer to develop their full potential in mathematics, physics etc., because they are not in competition with boys, but compete among themselves. This gives them more confidence. I went to a mixed (state) school. Today there are many girls doing Ph.D’s in physics, at least in Bristol. In fact there are 5 women on the faculty, as opposed to none many years earlier.

Q3. What is the difference between the attitude and perception of Rumanian, Israel and British women scientists?

Ans: The Rumanian education system was based on the communist perspective. In principle, it was structured on the tenet of equality of education to all, including gender equality.  In practice, there was gender bias and less scope of scientific growth for women, but not as much as in other western countries.  In fact, one’s career path was chosen for you based on your high school performance. In the context of Israel, women scientists are more aggressive, which is perhaps an effect of the intense competition for academic positions and the fact that military service was compulsory. In the military, many women had engineering and academic jobs, which they carried on with after military service.  In Britain women are more assertive because of the open society to which they belong. There are many medical doctors who are women, but very few in surgical specialties.  Stereotypically, young women are underrepresented in disciplines like physics, mathematics and engineering, partly because of their lack of role models.

Q4. Is there a lack of women in leadership roles in science in Britain, if so what is the reason?

Ans:  More than 70% of the women trained in science opt for careers other than a scientific career. Many scientists are not aware of women role models in science. There might be an unconscious bias. Women professors are very few,  but the Royal Society , the Institute of Physics  and  the Royal Society of Engineering are  working to improve the representation  of women in science.

Q5. Do you think women scientists act as role models to the younger generation?

Ans:  Yes! In many dimensions they do.  However young women scientists take up their career with their own free will and choice. They might be more experimental and innovative in their thinking, but they have to show more confidence in their abilities.  One way for them to gain this confidence is by learning from the lives of successful women scientists.

Q6. Do you think women pursue science differently from men?

Ans: They are more experimental and critical in thinking i.e. they tend to think outside the box. They can be creative in an unorthodox way and therefore bring a new dimension to scientific research. But, I reiterate, they do still need to show more confidence in their abilities.

Q7. Are you eclipsed by your husband (Sir Michael)?

 Ans: No! Rather than eclipsing me, he has been a great source of strength. He has supported me in my scientific career immensely.  In fact when I was writing my thesis, he helped me by taking care of the children and even gave a whole lecture with a baby on his shoulder. He is a much better scientist than me, but that has not hindered my progress in my scientific career.