INSPIRATIONAL WOMEN // q&a with professor alice roberts

Dr Alice Roberts

A couple of years ago I went to a talk by Professor Richard Dawkins at the Royal Institution.

It was chaired by academic, writer and broadcaster, Professor Alice Roberts, who was so smart and confident and knowledgeable and clearly had the admiration of Professor Dawkins, which – from what I knew of him via other interviews – was no mean feat.

You know when you have those ‘sliding doors’ thoughts – musing about where you would have ended up in life if you’d turned left instead of right? Becoming a journalist was always going to be my career path – it was what I’d wanted to be since I was six years old – but there has always been a big part of me fascinated by science. If the yearning to write hadn’t been so strong, I might very well have ended up in some field of science academia.

I left slightly in awe of Professor Roberts, who (if all of that wasn’t enough!) is also a mother of two; a daughter, aged seven, and a son, aged four. Which is why I’m so thrilled to feature her on Mummy’s Little Monkey today, talking about how she juggles motherhood with her demanding career and still manages to find time to relax and just be. 


What initially inspired you to move into medicine, and then into teaching/further studying? 

I loved science at school, and particularly biology. I had an anatomy pop-up book when I was about seven or eight, and was utterly fascinated by the structure of the human body – and I still am! I wanted to do something which involved applied science, and medicine was the obvious choice. After my medical degree, I worked as a junior doctor in South Wales, then took a job at Bristol University, teaching medical students anatomy, while still doing surgery some evenings and weekends.

I stayed on as a lecturer – planning to go back to surgery, but I gradually became more embedded in academia, and did a part-time PhD alongside teaching and doing research on archaeological skeletons. My tv work developed out of my research interest when I became a human bone expert on Time Team. I fitted that around academic work.

What was your biggest challenge reaching your goals?  How did you overcome this? 

In terms of career goals, I knew I wanted an academic job that combined teaching, research and public engagement. But in 2009, my role had ended up becoming increasingly narrow, until it looked like I’d have to give up all my public engagement activities and my research as well. I loved teaching, but I didn’t want to do that exclusively – especially while resources were being squeezed. I also felt that I had my head firmly up against a glass ceiling, as did other women in my department. So I ended up resigning from Bristol University, after eleven years. It was a really difficult decision, especially as I was pregnant with my first child at the time, but I knew immediately that I’d made the right choice. And then, after going freelance for a couple of years, I was offered a professorship in public engagement at the University of Birmingham, where I still work.

Did becoming a mother change your career focus? If yes, how? 

Massively! It puts everything in perspective. And I think it makes you much less selfish. And in terms of my career, it’s made me more focused, I think. I choose projects and roles that I think are particularly interesting or worthwhile.

When does a typical day begin, and what does it usually involve? 

There is no typical day! That’s the joy and challenge of both freelance and academic life. Some days I’ll be staying away from home, living in a hotel, filming on location, attending a conference, or doing a theatre tour with a new book. Other days I’ll be based at home, doing academic work or working on a script. I like the flexibility of working from home – being able to do the school runs, spend time with the kids after school, and then working in the evening as well. But I like to start the day with a few sun salutations, to stretch out my back, and a large mug of black coffee.

Lack of time is an issue most mums battle with – how do you make the very most of the time you have?

I’m good at prioritising – I have to be. I organise my time so that I can meet deadlines, and I set my own deadlines for work, too. I think modern technology and connectivity can make you feel under pressure – always available. But if you take control of it, it’s brilliant – and means you can work really efficiently. If I can fit some work into spare moments, that means I can spend more time with my family. I work on my phone or laptop on trains, planes and in cafes. I can access the university library and read research papers almost anywhere.

What sacrifices have you had to make to achieve your work/life balance? 

When I had my second child, I decided to take nine months maternity leave from the university, and a full nine months off from television presenting as well. There were two big tv projects that I turned down – a series on health and another on sacred places – but I don’t for one minute regret the time I spent with my new baby and young daughter. It’s such precious time, and you never get that chance again.

Is there another working mother you particularly admire? If yes, why? 

Oh – many friends, in many different ways! Everyone has to work out how to juggle work and family life, and it seems outrageous that it’s still particularly difficult for women to do this in the 21st century. There are so many things that could make it easier – and pave the way to better social equality, too. We could start with well-paid maternity leave and longer paternity leave, and more help with the expense of childcare. But I’d like to mention the working dads, too: there’s a growing number of fathers out there who also go part-time to allow them to share in the childcare – and they’re pioneers too. It’s not just about sharing the ‘burden’, as it’s so often framed, but about sharing the joy – and real teamwork. But the friends I most admire are those who are doing it on their own – as single parents.

What kind of example are you hoping to be for your children? 

I hope to inspire them to be interested in the world around them and to follow their dreams, whatever those may be. I love the fact that both my kids enjoy exploring outdoors – they love walking in wild places, climbing trees, cycling in the woods, and kayaking long coasts and rivers – and I hope that love of nature stays with them.

What are your thoughts on the growing movement to encourage young girls towards STEM subjects? 

I think it’s really important that girls aren’t turned off from doing physics and engineering because those are somehow seen as ‘boys’ subjects’, but I think it’s equally important that boys aren’t turned off from drama, psychology or biology. These gender stereotypes are social constructs that have the power to narrow our children’s horizons and lower their ambitions. So I think there’s a strong moral imperative to tackle those stereotypes – for the sake of our boys as well as our girls.

But I find the whole movement around ‘STEM’ subjects troubling at times – firstly, ‘STEM’ is an unhelpful acronym. Not everyone knows what it means, and it’s too broad and too narrow at the same time. The ’S’ stands for science, but we have absolutely no problem with the numbers of girls studying biology, medicine or veterinary science, for instance. And the way it’s talked about, it’s often framed in terms of the national economy and a missed pool of talent. That’s important, of course, but I’d rather focus on individual children – and making sure that they can fulfil their dreams and aspirations without unhelpful stereotypes getting in the way.

Every working mum (or mum in general!) can relate to feeling totally in control on some days, and completely out of control on others – how do you cope with those days when the juggle seems overwhelming?

I talk to my husband about it! We’re a team and we have to work together. We have to make sure the balance is right for each of us – and for the children.

Mums are often guilty of putting their own well-being behind everyone else’s – are there any particular health or beauty products or routines that you rely on for a quick pick-me-up?

The thing I find hardest is fitting in exercise. When I’m in the thick of writing a book, it’s probably easiest – I’ll do the school run, then go the gym or do a spin class, before settling in to spend the rest of the day writing. I don’t really have a ‘beauty routine’ – I don’t wear much make-up – but I do use a moisturiser on my face and hands every day. I worked with GREEN PEOPLE on their 20th-anniversary campaign last year and had the opportunity to try out a whole range of lovely, ethical products. But my favourite is still their simple daily moisturiser with sun-protection-factor.

What’s your best piece of advice for working parents? 

I’m not really one for dishing out advice, but if I had any it would be to talk to family and friends. Modern life can be quite insular; sometimes you might feel guilty, helpless, overwhelmed – or alone. But if you open up, you realise you’re not alone at all, and you might even pick up some good tips. Small kindnesses are hugely important – to receive and to offer.

You might be interested in my post on ‘Sexism, Stereotypes and Sabotage (why are we our own worst enemies?)’, or ‘How to Have it All: a Q&A with Editor, Author and Mum, Rosie Nixon

• Professor Roberts award-winning beauty brand GREEN PEOPLE; image courtesy of Dave Stevens

1 Comment

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