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Women’s work

Nature Reviews Chemistryvolume 3pages283286 (2019) | Download Citation

Academic chemistry is haemorrhaging talented female researchers. However, a barrage of new initiatives aims to stem the flood.

To the casual observer, 2018 looked like a breakthrough year for women in science. Frances Arnold shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on the directed evolution of enzymes, while the Nobel laureates in physics included Donna Strickland, who developed a method to generate ultra-short laser pulses. Arnold was the fifth woman in history to win the chemistry prize; Strickland was only the third woman to pick up the physics prize, and the first in 55 years.

Individual high-profile successes such as these are undoubtedly a cause for celebration. “But one very successful person doesn’t mean there is equity in the whole system,” says Kimberly Woznack, a chemist at the California University of Pennsylvania who chairs the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) Women Chemists Committee; “It’s not enough.” Even in 2019, there is a pervasive problem with the retention and progression of women in academic chemistry.

One of the most obvious signs is known as the leaky pipeline — the disproportionate loss of women as they move upwards through the academic hierarchy. As a result, very few talented female chemists reach senior positions in academia. The scale of this leak was laid bare in Diversity Landscape of the Chemical Sciences, a 2018 report from the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)1. Although women account for 44% of undergraduate chemists in the UK, only 9% of chemistry professors are female (Fig. 1). Similar trends appear in data from many other countries, including the US2,3, Germany4,5, Australia6 and China (S. Zheng, Chinese Chemical Society (CCS), personal communication).

Fig. 1: Women in academic chemistry.
Fig. 1

A breakdown of female representation by seniority in academia around the globe. Data was assembled from reports by the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK), the US National Science Foundation, OXIDE (Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity), the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) and the Chinese Chemical Society (CCS). *Data from RACI represent all natural and physical sciences.

Other scientific disciplines experience the same sort of attrition, “but chemistry’s pipeline is particularly leaky”, says Randall Peterson, director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School. “Unless you believe that men really are more capable, we have to assume that there is some kind of discrimination going on.”

“chemistry’s pipeline is particularly leaky”

The monumental unfairness of this situation is reason enough to demand change. But it also squanders talent, dramatically shrinking the pool of people who can potentially progress to leadership roles. Women of colour, and those who belong to other minority groups, face even greater barriers as they pursue academic careers. Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that all-male teams can exacerbate a toxic culture that allows bullying and harassment to thrive.

In recent years, new initiatives around the world have sought to correct this imbalance. Some aim to tackle the obvious barriers that can derail women’s careers, such as the challenges of balancing a career and a family life. Increasingly, though, researchers are digging deeper to understand the complex web of other factors that conspire to make academic chemistry careers less tenable for women than men. “I do feel like change is happening, and I’m optimistic for the future,” says Woznack. “The frustrating thing is that it’s so painfully slow.”

The double whammy

For many years, ‘women in chemistry’ efforts directed much of their focus on recruitment, and women are now approaching parity at undergraduate level in many countries. Despite that, the 9% representation of female chemistry professors still lags behind most other disciplines: across all academic subjects, 24% of UK university professors are women1.

The numbers are not much better in the US2,3, where women earned 39% of chemistry doctorates in the country in 2014, yet accounted for just 14% of full professors at leading universities (Fig. 1). Recent data show that women account for the same percentage of chemistry professors in Germany4,5, with similar levels of representation seen in Australia6 and China (S. Zheng, CCS, personal communication). “Despite the fact that we have so many different initiatives to promote and retain women in science, we have been failing,” says Ale Palermo, the RSC’s head of diversity.

In November 2018, the RSC released a follow-up report7 called Breaking the Barriers that explored some of the factors behind these numbers. The first factor stems from the unequal impact of caring responsibilities. As the UK Office for National Statistics reported in 2016, women typically spend more than twice as much time as men on childcare. A similar picture emerged from a 2015 report6 on Women in the Science Research Workforce, produced by a consortium including the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI). It reported that among chemists and biologists, almost three times as many women as men had taken a career break of 6 months or more (including parental leave). Yet opportunities for part-time and flexible working arrangements in academia are still relatively rare, and provision of affordable, high-quality childcare is frequently inadequate. Coupled with a long-hours culture that is seen as vital for career progression, it can force many scientists to make a difficult binary choice between work and family.

Then there is the peripatetic nature of the post-doctoral years, often spent chasing short-term grants and short-term posts in different locations. “The major factor is that this career uncertainty is happening at a time when women are looking to have children,” says chemist Michelle Coote of Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, who chairs the RACI Inclusion and Diversity committee.

“this career uncertainty is happening at a time when women are looking to have children”

The situation is compounded by the gender pay gap. The RSC reported1 UK government figures suggesting that 5 years after graduation, female physical science graduates are paid on average £2500 less than their male counterparts, even though there is no difference in achievement between male and female undergraduates. One possible consequence of this is that women are then more likely to take time out to care for a newborn child, in order to minimize the fall in household income. But the resulting gap in publications — along with absences from conferences or other events at which crucial research collaborations are forged — further entrenches their career disadvantage. “It’s a double whammy,” says Polly Arnold, a chemist at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

The RSC’s reports1,7 identified a range of problems with academic culture that act as additional barriers to women’s progress. A lack of transparency in recruitment and promotion processes can disproportionately hamper women, for example. They often lack mentoring support, and are less likely to be nominated for awards than men8.

Most worryingly, bullying and harassment is driving talented female chemists out of academia. In June 2018, a report9 from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that sexual harassment was a pervasive problem in US universities, with gender harassment (including sexual hostility) being the most common manifestation. It also noted that harassment was more likely to flourish in a male-dominated environment, and that department chairs were given little training on how to handle harassment cases. “I’d like to see a harder line taken on bullying and sexist or racist behaviour,” says Coote. “The minority responsible for this need to be disciplined properly, no matter how respected their science is.”

Making an impact

Various countries are already applying strategies to overcome these barriers, but it’s clear they need to be adopted far more uniformly. One obvious step is to offer men and women more parental leave and improve childcare provisions, says chemist Cathleen Crudden at Queen’s University, Ontario, adding that chemistry departments must also foster a family-friendly culture. Most faculty members in her department typically leave by 6 pm, she says, and events like faculty meetings are not scheduled in the evenings. This helps to create an environment in which parents don’t feel guilty about leaving work at a decent time, says Crudden.

Yet relying on institutions to initiate family-friendly policies can also create a patchwork of varying standards. In the US, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) ADVANCE program has awarded more than $270 million since 2001 to projects that help to advance women’s careers in science, and Woznack says the programme has been very successful. “But US policy doesn’t guarantee much maternity leave — it’s very institution-specific,” she says.

Some universities have instituted employment policies that explicitly seek to hire more women. That may mean adjusting how shortlists are drawn up, by giving more weight to activities like outreach, pastoral care and teaching, for example. Others are going much further, with some Australian universities trying female-only appointment rounds — that’s how Coote was hired at ANU. “But there’s a lot of debate about this approach, and there’s a stigma attached to appointees,” she says. “I was told by many of my colleagues I was appointed only because I was female, that I wasn’t a proper staff member.”

“I was told by many of my colleagues I was appointed only because I was female”

Crudden suggests that creating additional professorships that specifically target under-represented minorities could help to prevent this pushback. In November 2018, for example, the government of the Republic of Ireland announced10 that it will fund up to 30 women-only professorships in a wide range of disciplines over the next 3 years, with the aim of raising the proportion of women professors from 24% to 40% by 2024.

Targeted funding can also help. The UK’s Royal Society awards Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships for early-career researchers who need flexible working arrangements, while the Daphne Jackson Trust helps researchers to return to work after career breaks of several years. And according to Jihong Yu, a chemist at Jilin University in China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) now allows women to apply for Youth Research Funds up to the age of 40, whereas male researchers must be under 35.

Learned societies can also play a key role in improving the visibility and representation of women. For example, approximately 21% of full professors in China are women, and roughly 40% of the Chinese Chemical Society’s (CCS’s) 64,000 members are women6. But women account for just 6% of the CCS Board of Directors, who guide the Society’s work (Fig. 1). “Although the number of women with a higher education is increasing,” Yu says, “many excellent female scientists in chemistry are not progressing to senior positions in the same proportion as male scientists.” Yu herself is a pioneer in this regard: in January she became the first-ever female vice president of the CCS.

Societies can also encourage change through their meetings and awards. The RACI requires that a minimum of 30% of invited and plenary speakers at any of its conferences should be female, for example, and websites such as Diversify Chemistry aim to make that easier by providing searchable databases of female scientists. “My vision is that we use this approach to change the role models,” says Hildegard Nimmesgern, chair of the equal opportunities commission at the German Chemical Society (GDCh).

Crucially, learned societies also say they are taking a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment, and the RSC is planning to set up a bullying and harassment helpline later this year.

The knowledge gap

Many of these efforts target the most obvious inequalities, but there is a host of other subtle factors holding female chemists back. In a recent commentary11 in Nature Ecology and Evolution, genomicist and behavioural ecologist Kathleen Grogan of Pennsylvania State University, US, collated some examples of the systemic bias against women in science, for example, women are half as likely as men to get ‘excellent’ letters of recommendation. Female lead authors are 6.4% less likely than men to have their manuscript accepted by an all-male peer review panel. Women are less likely to be colloquium speakers at prestigious universities than men12, and women are featured in far fewer advertisements in Science and Nature than are men.

Women in science are also affected by a deeply ingrained sexism that goes far beyond the doors of chemistry departments. Tapping all our Talents 2018, a report from the Royal Society of Edinburgh13, offered a familiar rundown of problems: a lack of flexible working hours in universities, expensive childcare, the negative impact of career breaks and the gender pay gap are all driving women out of science. However, in its diagnosis, the report points out that many of these problems are found throughout society. To tackle that, the report called on the UK and Scottish governments to embed gender equality into everyday life, for example, by “using legislation, policies and public funding to drive acceptance that childcare is the equal responsibility of both parents.” Efforts to improve diversity and inclusion should become a routine part of working practice in universities, funding agencies and laboratories, adds chemist Lesley Yellowlees of the University of Edinburgh, UK, who was involved in producing the report and who became the RSC’s first female president in 2012.

The report also called for much more detailed monitoring of gender and other diversity metrics. Too many sectors engage in inclusion initiatives without evaluating the impact of this work, says Karen Salt of the University of Nottingham, UK, who studies inclusion and equality issues. Salt is the deputy chair of the external advisory group on diversity for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the umbrella body for the country’s funding agencies. UKRI is developing an evidence-based diversity strategy that involves trialling new interventions to evaluate and assess their impact. “We need to build our initiatives from intricate research,” says Salt.

To that end, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a UK government funding agency, launched its Inclusion Matters programme in August 2018. It is spending £5.5 million on 11 projects that aim to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in the disciplines it supports. “That is a serious amount of investment, and I’m hoping it’s the beginning of something larger,” says Salt.

Some projects are directly tackling the barriers that block women scientists, while others focus on gaining a better understanding of the systemic factors that stymie women’s careers. They should also help to fill the data gap, enabling researchers to assess whether interventions are actually working. Salt and Arnold, for example, are involved in an Inclusion Matters project called eBASE that aims to understand why so few women win the largest grants offered by EPSRC.

Salt points out that many initiatives aiming to help women in academia have targeted the individual, and assumed that women who don’t succeed are lacking something, such as opportunities, skills or support. But this ‘deficit model’ ignores the role of the academic system itself, including its governance, culture and recruitment practices, she says. All too often, they have also ignored the cumulative impact of gender, race, sexual orientation and other factors on career progression, adds Salt. “You can’t escape the fact that it’s intersectional, and that’s what makes it so complicated,” agrees Katie Nicoll Baines, project manager for the eBASE project.

Allies assemble

Interventions by universities, learned societies, funders and governments are all critical to improving the inclusion of minority groups in science. But researchers themselves also have a responsibility to act. “Gender equality is never going to happen until men get involved in the discussion,” says Peterson.

Take the UK’s Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) programme, which is generally lauded as a great success. It recognizes good practice in universities as they work towards gender equality, and departments or institutions can apply for recognition of their efforts through Bronze, Silver or Gold awards. By encouraging universities to record data on the progress of women, it has fostered change while helping to expose the scale of the problem, says Arnold. The Republic of Ireland and Australia have set up sister programmes, and in January 2018 the American Association for the Advancement of Science launched a similar scheme called SEA Change.

But Arnold points out that women have typically done the majority of the work in preparing award bids, labour that is often perceived as less valuable than winning big grants. Indeed, the membership of diversity committees in universities and learned societies tends to be overwhelmingly female. “It’s regarded as women’s work,” says Arnold. “And traditionally, when something is labelled as women’s work, it is accorded less reward.”

“consider what it’s like to be not one of the many, but one of the few”

Ultimately, she suggests, individual researchers should try to become an ally for anyone who faces greater career barriers or discrimination than themselves. Yellowlees agrees: “I would ask men to consider what it’s like to be not one of the many, but one of the few — and then consider how supportive you can be to the few.”

Additional information


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