Dr. Rosalind Potts is a researcher and Teaching Fellow at UCL based in Chandler House. Her area of interest is learning and memory, and her research aims to identify the conditions which make learning most effective.
Interviewer and Transcriber: Jessica Pu
Interviewer: Why did you choose to pursue a career in academia?
This is actually a second career for me. When I first graduated a long time ago, I went into industry, so I had a career in IT and Marketing, (specifically) telecoms marketing. Then I had my daughter and had a career break. During that time, I became very interested in psychology, so I started to study psychology and I took various qualifications, then eventually I took a PhD, realising that I’d like to go into academia. I had thought about becoming an educational psychologist, because I’ve always been interested in education. But at various points, I got the opportunity to do research and I fell in love with research. I got interested in memory and particularly, the application of memory research to educational situations.
Why did you choose to become a lecturer?
I suppose to me, it gives me the opportunity to put into practice some of the things I’m interested in research terms. But also I enjoy teaching, having the contact with students and seeing them develop, flourish and grow. Although I enjoy doing research as well, I don’t think I’d want to spend my whole time just doing research. I love the fact that through teaching I can put into practice some of the things that I discover through my research.
It also means that I can pass knowledge, and more importantly, help students to develop the skills to become independent learners and then go off and do a whole variety of things. I love seeing the year 3 students who I knew when they were in year 1, (becoming) so much more confident and capable and about to be released into the world. It’s very satisfying.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has reported that less than 1 in 5 professors in UK universities are women. Do you think such a gender gap exists in UCL?
I don’t know what the statistics are for UCL, but I do know that UCL has put a lot of effort into trying to look at these sorts of issues, because I think these issues of gender inequality exists throughout our society. I think, through the Athena SWAN programme, do you know about that? (Interviewer shakes head) Okay, so UCL has become involved in this national programme called Athena SWAN which is specifically aimed at tackling some of the issues of gender inequality in the Sciences in general. Universities can apply for an Athena SWAN award but they have to show that they have put into play certain practices which will help to alleviate this problem. So you can apply for a bronze, silver or gold award.
UCL(’s) division of psychology and language sciences currently holds a silver award, which is very good actually, not many universities have it (a silver award). And UCL’s going for gold at the moment and I think they’re actually very committed to getting it. They do things like (scheduling) meetings in core hours so if you’ve got to go and pick up your child from school you don’t have to miss out on going to a meeting, and you don’t have to miss out on picking up your child because you have to go to a meeting (laughs). So those sorts of things which, you know, when 30 years ago when I started work in industry, there’s no way any of that ever happened anywhere as far as (I know). So I think those things are very good. It’s true that when you look around, there are way more female students than male students in psychology. (But) as you go further on, when you get to PhD students or lecturers, that changes. And who knows what the reasons are for that, but I do think that UCL is trying to tackle this issue.
Do you think some departments have a better female to male ratio than others? For example, literature and history?
I don’t know actually about that, and I’m afraid I don’t have any figures. I mean, certainly, when I was studying languages for my first degree there were more women than men studying languages, (but) I don’t know whether that’s still the case.
Would you say that the female to male ratio is still lower in higher levels of education? Like you just mentioned, as the level gets higher, the ratio changes. Why do you think this disparity exists?
It’s very hard to say. It could be historical because these issues are only starting to be addressed and because it has taken society a ridiculously long time really to grapple with this issue, then maybe some of it is left over. Obviously it takes a certain amount of time to get to a certain point in your career. Maybe it just that there are more men than women in high positions, because they started earlier. And of course, there are issues with women leaving academia to have children then coming back, and inevitably then you’re going to get behind with research and so forth. So any sort of measures that can be put in place to make sure that women are not disadvantaged by that, I think, are good ones. One thing that’s happened relatively recently is the research excellence framework, which measures the quality of research outlets and happens every 5 years. They normally had to have 4 papers in the last 4 years to qualify (as researchers). In the most recent exercise, which was about a year or two ago, they specifically put something in saying if you’ve had a career break, or if you’re a part-timer, you don’t have to have that many papers. I think it has taken a long time for people to realise that those are important things, but I think they (are) slowly starting to happen. So I think there is hope for women in the future (laughs).
Do you think women become less inclined towards academia once they start a family?
I don’t see why they should become less inclined. I mean, I would say that academia in some ways is more family friendly than other kinds of work that I’ve done in the past. So, the kind of work I did when I was in telecoms marketing, for example, was very all or nothing. It was a case of, you know, you had to be in the office at 8 or 9 in the morning, and you were still there at 7 o’ clock in the evening, and there wasn’t any flexibility about that. Whereas, in academia you have a lot of autonomy and flexibility about the (working) hours. I mean, people tend to work a lot of hours, that’s certainly true, but at least you have some flexibility about what hours you work, to some degree — obviously you have to deliver your teaching, but around that you can work from home sometimes, you can be flexible. I work a lot on weekends, just because there’s a lot to do (laughs). So I don’t see why it would put people off more than any other job, really. I think it would be a shame if that were the case.
You mentioned the Athena SWAN programme and the change to the research excellence framework. Do you think anything could else could be done to bridge the gender gap in academia?
I think it’s good for women to see other women as role models. I think the more we can get women into those positions, the easier it is then for other women to see, oh, okay, this person has been able to do that, maybe it’s not so hard and maybe I can do that too. Because I think part of the problem is that, when you grow up and you only see people who are not like you, whether it’s gender or race or whatever, in those positions, it’s hard for you to know what kind of person you need to be, to be that sort of person to get that kind of job or to pursue that kind of career. That’s something that can only really be solved by having (females) in those positions.
I do think that at UCL it’s not too bad; I mean I think if you just look around there are plenty of female lecturers. (Interviewer expresses that most of her lecturers are still males) Most of your lecturers are still males? Really? (Takes in breath) Ooh (awkward laugh). Well, I mean, I don’t know, I certainly hope that will change over time, but I don’t know what would make it change, I don’t know whether there are things that are making women not pursue academia. One thing, I guess, is that it’s very very competitive and very hard. I’m not saying that men are more likely to get into hard positions (laughs), I’m certainly not saying that. But it may be that some women are thinking that they’d rather go into something where there’s some sort of more certainty and actually start a career, because it takes such a long time, I think, to build a career in academia. If you are thinking of having a family later on, you know, you could put all that effort in and then still not quite get to that point at the time when you need to be thinking about having a child. But whereas if you go into another kind of work, you could actually build quite a good career before you have your children, and then you’ve got something quite good to come back to, so maybe it’s a timing issue. But I don’t really know, I’m really speculating off the top of my head ‘cause I don’t really know, I’m not a typical example because I came to it later in life so I’ve done all that, I’ve had my family. I don’t know, I think it’s a shame if women are put off (from) academia because I think it’s a good career; it’s very interesting, it’s very stimulating, it’s very rewarding; it’s rewarding seeing your students do well, it’s interesting doing research and finding out new things.
What advice would you give to young female psychology students who want to pursue a career in academia?
I would just say go for it, and don’t be afraid of going for it because I think, clearly women are good at psychology and that’s why we get so many women (laughs) compared to men. I think, if you have a passion for research, then follow that passion. I’ve loved all the jobs that I’ve done in different ways, but for sheer intellectual stimulation, academia beats all of them. So, I think if you have a genuine passion for research then it would be a shame not to follow that, and I think if you do follow it, I think the world is changing and I don’t think women should be put off. I think universities like UCL and a few other universities that have got this award I think really are making it genuine; you can’t get it just by ticking off a few boxes, you have to make genuine changes. I would say to women that it’s a good career to be in. I would say that it’s a good career to combine with children, actually. I mean it’s difficult for me to say as I didn’t really have young children when I was in academia. But certainly, as far as I can see, it’s better than most jobs, which are much less flexible, so I would encourage anyone to go for it. I think it’s a great career.
‘Bridging the Gap’ is an initiative by the Bedford Bugle to educate (ourselves and) the public about the factors and consequences of gender disparity in academia. We hope our readers will enjoy this series of interviews with top researchers in the field. We also hope that by bringing these issues to light, awareness can be created, followed by positive change.
Psychology and Language Sciences Division’s Athena SWAN page here