Young Women of Geoscience (YWOG)


“Do what you like and see where that takes you” – Meet Frances Dunn, Post-Doctoral Researcher – Water, Climate & Future Deltas Hub

What is your role or function at Utrecht University?

I am a post doc working as part of the Water, Climate and Future Deltas Hub. I’m currently working on hydrological modelling for the hub.

Why did you decide to go into science?

I didn’t really make an active decision to become a “scientist”. At university, for my Bachelors I chose to study Geography because it was a bit of everything basically. It kept my options open. I enjoyed the physical geography side, which led me to do a masters in Environmental Science. That was the point that I specialized and thought: “this is fun, let’s do a PhD in this”. For me it was an easy progression.

Why did you decide to do a PhD versus working in a company?

I really enjoyed doing my Bachelor and Masters theses, but I felt like there wasn’t enough time to explore them fully. These were really interesting topics and I couldn’t do them justice, I couldn’t do enough reading about them and as far as I could tell, a PhD would provide me with that time, to fully read and delve into one particular topic. So I thought that would be fun and it turned out that it was exactly like I thought.

Do you find there are many women in this field? Are there role models or leading scientists who are female?

No. I think the ratio in the Netherlands is slightly worse than in the UK but it’s not great in the UK either. It’s become more obvious to me over time, at Bachelor and Masters level it’s a pretty even mix and at PhD level the mix is quite good (it was at Southampton where I did my PhD), but after I finished my PhD and was working at Southampton for a while it became more obvious that it was no longer even. We could have a meeting with 4-5 people and I could easily be the only woman. It depends of course on the project but then when I came to the department here I saw that most people in the department are men. It’s never really been a problem just something I have observed.

Did you find being the only woman in working groups had an effect on you?

I think it makes things different. There is a lot of personal differences with how people communicate. Women do communicate differently to men and if you are in a group of particularly men in senior positions, it can be difficult to contribute effectively. This might have been easier if there were women there as well.

Do you think life after you finish a PhD is different based on your gender?

Not that I have really seen. I have heard anecdotally that there are differences. Women are less likely to want to move or be mobile for their careers which is expected as a post doc. They might be more likely to work in companies or industries after their PhD because of that. That can reflect anyone’s individual circumstances of course, they might not want to move away from their family, their decision can be based on what their partner is doing etc. It’s complicated!

What is your view for yourself and your future career?

I would like to continue to be employed! I am really enjoying this post doc at the moment, it suits me really well to have one specific project I can work on. I like working with the different groups at the university and doing this pure research. Eventually however, I am going to want a permanent job and not 2-3 year contracts which is one reason that I will stop pursuing post docs. Now I have seen what it is like for lecturers and professors and people who are in those senior positions, a lot of the work doesn’t seem like what I would like to do. I have taught a little but it has never really drawn me in which is a huge part of the job. Also other aspects of the job like continuous grant applications, building your research group, maybe eventually I would like to do that, but for now I just really enjoy working on individual research projects.

At the Water, Climate and Future Deltas hub there are several women in higher positions, do you see them as role models?

I think it is good to have women like that in your research group. Esther Stouthammer is part of the management team of the hub and she is the reason I knew about this job in the first place. She was my external examiner for my PhD and we knew each other before which has made the transition easier. Seeing Esther in this position and what she has accomplished in her career and everything she does, and how she appreciates how different it is for female professors and researchers is great. Also Marjolijn Hasnoot is working for the hub but also works for Deltares, which is really nice because I now see another pathway which I could also do. It’s nice to see the range of what is possible for me in the future.

What advice would you give to young female scientists?

It depends on what you want to achieve. I am having a good time with my life because I am doing things that I enjoy but I don’t have any particular career plan. If you have a goal, for example want to be a professor, you might have to do a bunch of things that you don’t actually enjoy to get yourself into a position where you can become a professor. But if you don’t have a set goal you might as well just do what you like and see where that takes you, that’s what I’m doing and that’s going really well.

Is there a similar awareness of gender issues in the UK? Are there groups like YWOG for researchers in the universities you worked in?

We didn’t have a group like YWOG, but at a the wider university/department level there are similar drives, people are aware of the terrible gender ratio in Geosciences and they are trying and want to be seen to be trying to even this out. In the UK we have Athena SWAN ( so you can get a Bronze, Silver or Gold ranking for efforts in your department to make it gender-equal, this system applies from students right through to professors, so it takes everything into account. In my department in Southampton they were going for their silver standard when I left. It’s a lot of work but people are willing to do it. I also see here in the Netherlands that people are aware of this lack of women in more senior positions and they want to do something about it but how do we do it, why is there a lack of women and is it even possible to change academia as it is now to make it more welcoming?

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