Plugging the leaky pipeline for UK female chemists

The Royal Society of Chemistry has a plan to boost retention and promotion of female academic researchers.
Scientist working in laboratory fume cupboard

Many female chemists leave academia at early-career stages, so the UK Royal Society of Chemistry is aiming to slow that loss of talent.Credit: Chris Henderson/Getty

The eminent Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in Cambridge, an association for chemical researchers in the United Kingdom, aims to plug the ‘leaky pipeline’ of women in academia. Compared with other scientific disciplines, this is a particular problem in chemistry. The society’s plan is to help more female chemists to remain in the enterprise and to progress to senior positions.

In its Breaking the Barriers report, published last week, the RSC says that female chemical scientists tend to leave academia at early-career stages — and that those who remain do not ascend to senior grades in the same proportion as their male counterparts. Women comprise just 9% of UK chemistry professors, meaning that after undergraduate level, the relative proportion of female chemists drops by 35 percentage points, according to a RSC diversity report released earlier this year.

The RSC identifies three barriers to women’s retention and promotion. Female chemists receive mostly short-term funding and contracts, which creates uncertainty and unnecessary pressure; the academic culture is not transparent about recruitment and promotion practices, and allows bullying and harassment; and there is a lack of part-time and flexible working options to accommodate parenting and care-giving responsibilities. The RSC aims to address these barriers through a five-point plan.

Female chemists lauded the report’s acknowledgement that the leaky pipeline stems from institutional and cultural barriers, rather than implying it is a result of differences in gender. “It is refreshing to see a report that doesn’t attempt to fix women by sending them to leadership training and workshops, or telling them to be more resilient,” says Nazira Karodia, a chemist and dean of the faculty of science and engineering at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. “Women do not lack ambition or inspiration,” she adds. “We are tired of being marginalized.”

As part of its five-point plan, the RSC wants to launch grants in early 2019 for those who are carers, and to establish a helpline through which people can report bullying and harassment. One possibility being discussed at the RSC is using the helpline responses to determine whether a theme of harassment emerges, or to identify regions where harassment concerns are prevalent, says Polly Arnold, the RSC’s inclusion and diversity committee chair, and a synthetic chemist at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “We need to make sure everybody, men included, are talking about these issues,” she says. “We developed carers’ grants, rather than focusing solely on motherhood, to facilitate men in joining the conversation — we need everyone to pull their weight to improve the environment.”

The report’s authors say that, as part of the plan, the RSC will annually recognize chemistry departments that significantly improve their inclusion and diversity practices. It also aims to improve communication between universities and other sectors, including industry, around best practices on women’s retention and career progress, and to launch a forum for funders, employers, professional societies and researchers to drive cultural change around gender and diversity.

Karodia says that the RSC could take bolder steps to remove racial, cultural, structural and gender barriers that block female chemical researchers from reaching senior grades. “Developing a successful career in chemistry as a woman from a minority background was not easy,” she says. Of a total of 19,000 UK university professors in all fields in 2016–17, just 25 were black and female, according to a report by British newspaper The Guardian. Karodia says that the low numbers of minority ethnic female chemists present the most compelling evidence that initiatives to improve those counts are desperately needed.

Arnold says that the RSC also aims to improve conditions for all under-represented groups, including black and ethnic minorities as well as the LGBT+ community, and that the society is starting with gender first. “Women are our biggest minority,” says Arnold. “If we can make the workplace better for women, we’ll make it better for everyone.”

Nature 565, 389 (2019)

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