Interviewer and Transcriber: Aleya Marzuki

Anna Hughes is a Teaching Fellow and researcher at the Faculty of Brain Sciences in UCL. Her research work primarily involves vision perception, where she employs several psychophysical techniques including eyetracking and monitoring.

Can you tell us a little bit about your academic background?

I opted for a sort of general science degree for my undergraduate degree and ended up specialising. At first I wanted to apply for Biochemisty or chemical biology and things, but then I discovered how fascinating neuroscience and psychology was, and ended up specialising in these areas. Then I went to do a PhD in visual perception, which is as far as I’ve got really. I’m just in the middle of finishing that (PhD) off and am hopefully going to be handing in my thesis soon. Its felt like a long journey (laughs).

Why did you choose to pursue a career in academia?

I like academia. There are few careers that are quite so varied with lots of freedom. You can choose what you want to research, you get an awful lot of freedom and flexibility in doing that. I also enjoy doing the teaching side of things. You get to work on different projects with interesting people. (Research) really is one of the most interesting and diverse things you can do I think, having not done that much else.

So, you mentioned teaching. What do you enjoy most about this and being a lecturer?      

I enjoy, I know this sounds a bit rubbish, but trying to do a good job?  I think lecturing is one of the hardest things you can do, because you stand there in front of 120 people, from all sorts of backgrounds and interests. And if you’re lecturing for first and second year compulsory modules it’s especially so, when you’re lecturing the compulsory modules. You’re trying to make it sound interesting to them and that’s not always easy.  I don’t think I get it right all the time. Which is why it’s good practice that you get to do presentations during seminars. It’s a lot easier in a small ground so people can ask questions when they don’t understand something. But when it’s in a class of 120 of you it’s hard to ask questions and for me to give individual feedback. You just have to keep ploughing on to the end really.

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 wouldn’t like to speculate across the whole of UCL. But I think there probably is a gender bias. Psychology isn’t as bad as some disciplines because psychology is pretty predominantly female at undergraduate, and potentially graduate level, so there is a large pool of women going into it. There may still be somewhat of a leaky pipeline though, I suppose reasons being that it takes a long time to become a professor. I suspect UCL isn’t too bad because it was founded as being a college for everyone, and was set-up as mixed gender college in a time where that was quite unusual. So it’s got that kind of fairness built into it. But I don’t know, it would be interesting to see the data.

Do you think some departments have a better female to male ratio than others?

Yes, my understanding is that the kind of harder sciences, computer science, chemistry, physics, have this bigger problem than maybe life sciences or social sciences.

What about psychology in particular?

I think psychology does better than some departments but I don’t know if it does as well as it should do. There is some research that suggests that physics has a very low number of female professors, but also a low number of female undergraduates, so the dropout isn’t as high. The same can’t be said for psychology obviously.

So what reasons do you think exist for such disparity? Keeping in mind that more females than males pursue higher education.

It’s the million dollar question really. I actually read a paper on this recently. It’s interesting because obviously there are studies that suggest hiring bias or discrimination is a part (of this problem). This paper I read was a review essentially, that was looking at the whole set of research done in this area. They seemed to be saying that it wasn’t really hiring bias. Women were getting hired in the right ratio to how many were applying. So the argument seemed to be that women were making a deliberate choice to not pursue academic careers. There are various reasons for why this may be, such as the perception that this career may not be very family-friendly. The critical years in your career are often coinciding pretty exactly with the better child-bearing years. So it would be quite difficult, I think, to make a decision there. And there is some evidence, I think, that women are more likely to feel unhappy in the (academic) sort of environment. According to this paper I think they report lower satisfaction than men do. This could be, again, partly linked to the fact that women, on average, want work-life balance. And maybe academia isn’t always known to be the best place for that. But in some ways it is quite family-friendly; you can work when you want to. It’s not the sort of culture who you have to come in at half 8 in the morning and leave at half 5. So it is quite flexible. But of course, there is the expectation that you do long hours really. There’s always more to do.

What do you think could be done to bridge the gap?

So there’s quite a bit that’s been done already. There’re these various grants and funding available for anybody, which is good. Anybody can come back in after having had a family as there is support available for them. Also, there are ways of making fellowships part-time, stretching them out over a longer period of time, leaving time to also care for your kids. I think men should be given more choice too, to make them feel more expected to take on child care duties as well. I think there is often a lot of stigma against guys taking on such roles. If we could do anything to make that seem more normal, that would help reduce the pressure in this sense. You know, I guess there’s sort of work-life balance culture stuff, as well. But this is all sort of entrenched in academic culture itself. I think it would be hard to change these elements directly. I think because at the end of the day, if women are deciding that they want to go into alternative careers, and are successful and having a good time; that to me seems to be a positive choice and positive outcome.

Could academia make itself more attractive? Potentially. But, people would argue that the nature of academia is that it is long hours and it is unstable. This was another thing that was interesting in this paper I mentioned: female academics are more likely to marry other male academics. Male academics, on the other hand, are more likely to not marry an academic. This must work out numerically somewhere. But I suppose fundamentally, there are lots of people who are unmarried (laughs). (Non-academic spouses) may be more beneficial to men as the women may be more likely to be okay with moving. With two academics you have the two-body problem all the time. They’re always trying to find universities to work in, and it can be quite hard to find to jobs in the same university. And you may find the woman giving it up because she’s not quite as senior in her career, because it is more common for the man to be older in the relationship as well. So you have these things that don’t seem like problems at first, but eventually cascade. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just the way things seem to fall in the context of academia, where the woman is not always favoured.

Any words of motivation or advice for budding girl researchers out there?

I would say, look for role models. There is evidence saying that role models are beneficial. Especially when you look up to women in more senior positions. I guess that can be part of the community you identify with, and will motivate you to carry on. So if you think you might want to do research, it’s good if you can to find female role models, and see that, well since they’re doing cool things, you can too.

Have some confidence as well. It can be quite hard, for both genders, and it can be quite a long slog. There can also be a lot of failure involved in it as well. Doing a PhD involves having a lot of things not working.  You have to be quite resilient. And I think there is evidence that women tend to be harder on themselves and women find it difficult to be confident. There was a study quite recently about how people perceive themselves in a class and who people perceive top performers to be. Again, people have this inherent bias to perceive a man to be top of the class, even when there are women doing just as well as them. We can argue why that may be, but the message here it to not let yourself fall into that trap. Just remember that you might have those cognitive biases, but you’re probably just as good.


Click here to read the research paper mentioned by Anna in this interview

‘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