Interview: Susan Greenfield

The leading neuroscientist has overcome poverty and prejudice to succeed.

By Lynne Franks, November 24, 2011
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Baroness Susan Greenfield: battling against sexism in the sciences

Baroness Susan Greenfield: battling against sexism in the sciences

Lynne Franks: How has the Jewish aspect of your upbringing influenced you?

Susan Greenfield: My Jewish credentials are through my father's father who was a first-generation immigrant from a shtetl in Austria who came over as a baby towards the end of the 19th century. My dad was born in 1915 and grew up in the East End and spoke some Yiddish. Like many Jews, my grandfather came over poor and became an entrepreneur. He ended up owning a chocolate factory. Then he died very early and my paternal grandmother remarried the cantor of the shul so it became a very strict Jewish household. The reason I mention this is because my father grew up in what was a very strict Jewish environment. When he brought my mother home, who was 12 years younger and a dancer and a Christian, and there was some alarm. In fact, alarm on both sides of the family, from my mum's mum too. My two grandmothers never spoke to each other. The only merit was that the prejudice was equally vociferous on both sides. That is why I am particularly sensitive to racism and sexism and ageism and all the other isms.

LF: And you spent time with both sides of the family?

SG: Yes. For the Jewish side it was almost monthly, if not twice monthly meetings of the clan where my grandmother would hold court and school reports on my cousins and myself would be passed around for scrutiny. What I really remember is a lovely feeling of an extended family. I got a place at Godolphin [and Latymer] School and there was this hugely daunting list - I still remember it - of hockey pads and indoor shoes and outdoor shoes and x number of grey knickers and so on. My father was an electrician and poor, so my uncle, his brother, just paid for everything and that was just assumed.

LF: Was it always very clear to you that getting a place at Godolphin was a huge achievement and that you were going to go onto university?

SG: My grandfather lost all his money and so overnight dad went from riches to rags. So we were certainly very poor, but we had a respect for education. Although I got into Godolphin I never saw myself as particularly academic, and because my parents, although they are very bright, weren't educated, they really couldn't help me with my homework or anything, and I used to do it on the bus. Because I have got a native wit I kind of just winged it. I got by. Then I was about 13 or 14 and at Godolphin that was when you did a third language. One of the options was ancient Greek which I quite fancied doing and I remember them saying to me: "This is a very difficult subject and we are not sure whether you are able to do it", and because I have got a bloody-mindedness, when people say that to me it tends to make me want to do it. So I tried doing some work beforehand and then in the first-year exams I got 95 per cent. It clicks when you realise that you have to work, which no one had bothered telling me. So suddenly everything changed because I applied this simple formula to everything else. So I was suddenly went into the Oxbridge stream.

LF: There were not that many girls going to Oxford in those days, were there?


Born: October 1950 in London. Grandfather a Jewish immigrant from Austria
Career: Undergraduate at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Academic specialising in the physiology of the brain. Currently professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. Known for popularising science, with regular appearances on TV and radio. Made a baroness in 2001. Became the first woman director of the Royal Institution in 1998, but was controversially dismissed in 2010 amid allegations of sexual discrimination.

Personal life: Married for 14 years to academic Peter Atkins. Divorced in 2005. No children

SG: There was an 8:1 ratio, men to women. But Oxford was the making of me. I think the whole point of the place, especially then, was that you were encouraged to be the individual you were. You could do anything you wanted to do, from tiddly-winks to parachuting, with the one proviso - that you had to do it very well. Actually, what I found I was doing was a lot was talking. Just sitting in each other's room listening to music, especially Bob Dylan, and analysing it, and drinking mugs of coffee. Mugs were new in those days. The mug was the bohemian thing to have.

LF: What were you actually studying?

SG: Philosophy, with psychology. But the way philosophy was taught then was very linguistic and I remember sitting in the Bodleian Library with a whole chapter on the definite article, thinking, "Is this how I want to spend my time?" So I changed to straight psychology which was then a very new subject at Oxford. Then I got really excited because I got much more into the physiological aspects of psychology. I was really interested in dissecting a brain. It was amazing.

After my first degree, I didn't know what I wanted to do and my tutor said: "I think it will be a hoot if you are a scientist. Go and see Professor Paton in pharmacology". And he took me on with no science credentials whatsoever to do neurochemistry. That year there was an Australian in the lab who was post-doctorate. He used to keep telling me I was an arty-farty type and I shouldn't be there and how ridiculous it all was. That brought out my bloody-mindedness. I really put my head down. After the first year there was a senior scholarship at one of the colleges which I got. The biggest pleasure I got out of getting this very competitive senior scholarship was to show this guy he was wrong.

LF: Was this area of neurochemistry very male dominated at that time?

SG: Science always is, but traditionally bio-medical sciences has more women. In 2002, I did a report for Patricia Hewitt at the Department of Trade and Industry on women in science, and of the statistics it revealed, I don't know which is the more depressing. For physical sciences the gender ratio is 90:10 towards males and stays that way from school through to research and so on. For bio-medical sciences it is about 50:50. But - and this is the big but - things change after the first degree. As soon as women want to have children, it fizzles out and ends up at senior levels at 90:10 again.

LF: Is that why you decided not to have children?

SG: It was a combination of factors. My brother is 13 years younger than me and I remember all the smelly nappies and my mum not being able to go out because how would we get a babysitter? That didn't put me off children completely, but it certainly took away any rose-tinted specs I might have had about it. When I was married it was made clear from the outset that my husband Peter would rather not have children. I knew exactly where he was coming from and it was absolutely not a problem. Then I got so involved in what I was doing. I do like kids but I have never felt, as I know some women do, this complete compulsion to get pregnant.

LF: You have pretty much stayed in Oxford ever since your university days.

SG: I studied in Paris for a year. Traditionally in science you do what is called post-docs abroad, which is one of the lovely things about the field. No one is in it for the money but one of the things I would say to somebody who is contemplating a research career, it is completely cosmopolitan and international. If you walk into most labs you will find more than one nationality because of this post-doc thing. Typically in your late 20s or early 30s the norm is to go abroad for a year or two. I went to the College de France Information in Paris which was a huge privilege. My other post-doc was at NYU Medical Centre in New York, so I really landed on my feet in both cases in two very exciting cities. But I always knew I was returning to Oxford. It suits me very well. I love the notion of promoting individual talents and people respecting each other's abilities and the freedom to be and think and do. And I like being able to wear jeans everywhere. I couldn't wear jeans in London.

LF: I find that really funny coming from you because you have always been portrayed in the media as the rebel woman scientist who dresses sexy and shows off her legs. There has been huge amounts of publicity about your long blonde hair, for instance.

SG: So what does this tell you about how people perceive scientists? The fact is you have to say "female" scientist. You don't say female novelist ever, or female advertising executive or female journalist… I just roll with it but it just tells you how science is perceived because the implicit prejudice is that a scientist is normally a white middle-aged man wearing a tie. The fact that you are not is noteworthy.

LF: You have been a strong spokeswoman for more women in science for a long time and I read a quote from you that you wish women would be a little bit more forthcoming.

SG: My credo is that I would love to see a world where the person trumps the gender. Certainly, as regards working with both sexes, there is good and bad. If you have to discipline a male member of your staff, if you say something like, "I don't think you are working very hard", they will take that on the chin and say "I think this or that", and you will talk it through and then that is the end of it. A woman might burst into tears, get sulky, generalise the very specific complaint. The strong thing about women is that they are very sensitive to relationships, but there is a bad side to that - in that sort of situation, they think you don't like them any more. Men compartmentalises their professional lives and their personal lives more easily than women do. Also, I think men are far more competitive than women. What I try and do with the women I have supervised is to actually get them to fight their corner and to stand up for what they believe in.

LF: Do you think that women in leadership roles tend to be more collaborative?

SG: Yes, and there's also something called the imposter syndrome. Many successful women I have spoken to often feel they are there by a fluke. They feel that they will be seen through in a way that I don't think men do.

LF: I want to talk about Israel now. You have been there quite a lot.

SG: Yes. In 1969, I was on something called the Bridge in Britain. It was a bit like VSO or the Peace Corps, but it was for people between school and university. There were two dozen of us - 12 boys and 12 girls - and they took us out to Israel for six months. It was structured that the first four months you spent on a kibbutz and the final two months in social service. I was 18 and it was a wonderful time. Arriving at Haifa I remember that I made a big decision that I was going to have my first cigarette. I decided to be an international woman of adventure. This was my new image. I remember holding this cigarette, smouldering as I stood there. Complete joy. I also remember seeing the Star of David everywhere for the first time and my experience of Hebrew writing. In that sense I suppose I felt I was coming home in an eerie way.

I have stayed involved with Israel over the years, working with Israeli scientists. Then I got put on the international board of the Weizmann Institute. So I have lots of connections with Israel, including fighting the academic boycott. A group of British academics decided they didn't like Israel's policy and that one way to deal with this was to boycott Israeli scientists. This infuriated me. This was about 2002. I wrote a very robust piece in The Times, how stupid it was and how no one won, how it was actually hindering science and possibly therefore the saving of lives. In return, which I was very flattered by, I got awarded an honorary degree from the Hebrew University and also one from Haifa University.

LF: Moving on to the Royal Institution, you were there for a long time.

SG: Twelve years, and on my watch we raised about £12 million which enabled us to embark on a complete refurbishment. During that time we introduced the science media centre, the young scientist centre, and a scheme for bring under-privileged children from Australia over for lectures. I am very proud that a lot of innovations were brought in.

LF: But you feel there is a problem with sexism in science as a whole.

SG: Of course there is. It is like racism. Let's not deny there is racism, but you just stick your chin out, put your hands on your hips and get on with it. The best way of combating it is to show that you can do a bloody good job and act as a role model to others like yourself. I think that is the best service you can do.

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    Last updated: 11:49am, November 24 2011