Event report

Women, Inspiration & Leadership: Leadership lessons from women in science

An article by Alice Tchernookova from FrancaisaLondres.com

On 7 October, Baroness Sue Black, forensic anthropologist and pro-vice chancellor for engagement at Lancaster University, and Baroness Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and founder and CEO of Neuro-Bio Ltd, engaged in a tongue-in-cheek conversation about the lessons they learnt throughout a lifetime working in the science sector at the Sofitel London Saint James.

“Keep laughing at things. Sometimes life is so ridiculous that you have to take it as a joke. You have to retain a sense of humour.”

Such were the words of Baroness Susan Greenfield at the end of the edifying, light yet inspirational, exchange that took place between her, Baroness Sue Black and podcast producer Cassandra Pittman at the French Chamber's latest in-person event.

Science, Greenfield added, is exciting because it is like art: no two people can do it the same, and every individual’s interpretation is singular.

Yet, neither her nor peer Baroness Sue Black felt particularly predestined to science to begin with. But they both made decisive encounters that inspired them for a lifetime.

“I had the most wonderful biology teacher – he had that infectious energy and enthusiasm,” said Black. “He sent me off to do work experience in a hospital, and I went, of course. That’s when it all began.”

Both Black and Greenfield have had the most astonishing and rewarding careers, punctuated by CBEs, OBEs and appointments to the House of Lords. Regardless, they have remained heart-warmingly approachable and down-to-earth.

“It’s wonderful to have a people around you that keep you grounded and aren’t snobs,” said Greenfield. “It’s the kind of thing that keeps you sane. It’s the sheer fun of life.”

Both are living proofs of the old saying “do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life”.

“Even after a 20-hour day when you’re feeling completely exhausted, you’re ready to do it all again in the morning – because you love it,” said Black. Greenfield, meanwhile, described her work as being an integral part of her identity – her raison d'être, the thing that makes her get up in the morning.

The idea of fun, the pair agreed, is overrated, because doing what you love – even when that thing is your job – makes you feel fulfilled in a way that fun doesn’t.

“I feel sad for the people – and there are many nowadays – who separate both things and don’t enjoy what they do for a living,” said Greenfield. “At times I am still amazed that I get paid for what I do.”

The baronesses also reflected on ways to get more women into the field of science. It starts at a young age, they said: girls need to be inspired, excited, and engaged.

But the most important, Black insisted, is for there to be no barriers preventing them from accessing those subjects. “At school, you are restricted and pigeonholed very early on, as if you couldn’t be good at more than one thing,” she deplored.

Both of them also agreed that many life choices can be dictated by circumstances and by simply being in the right place at the right time, rather than by conscious choices.

“Serendipity plays a role in our destiny,” said Greenfield. “I’ve always taken on challenges, and I’ve never said no. Life is so short on this planet, and I’ve got this weird sense that things happen for a reason.”

Over time, her peer added, humans get the opportunity to look back and understand the key crossroads of decision that paced their life.

Wrapping up the conversation, Pittman asked the two scientists what they would tell their 25-year-old self if they could go back in time.

“When confronted with bullies, keep laughing, don’t let them see you cry. In the end, just be yourself,” Greenfield responded.

“It’s about being kind to yourself,” Black added. “As a younger woman, I was being very hard on myself. Age is that wonderful thing that gets you to a point where you just don’t give a damn anymore. Some things really do not matter.”

Pittman then proceeded to sum up the key points made by the baronesses throughout their conversation:

  • lead your life and other people with humility, ambition, and say yes to everything life has to offer;
  • pursue your passion so that you’re not working;
  • live with vision, kindness and humour, and remember that there’s lot of luck in it too.

The audience certainly left the room tonight feeling like we had learnt lessons for a lifetime.

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