It's in all our interests to promote the career progression of women in chemistry, says Annette Williams

It’s in all our interests to promote the career progression of women in chemistry, says Annette Williams

Sixty per cent of new graduates in the UK, and over half of new postgraduates, are women. But over half of the chemistry graduates, and most graduates across science, engineering and technology, are men. Equality and diversity are central to a renewed focus on UK research careers, which are key to strengthening scientific research and boosting the national economy.  

The UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) is working with partners on initiatives to ensure that women are aware of the benefits of choosing scientific careers. Women need encouragement and support throughout the education and employment pipeline in overcoming the cultural and structural factors that impact disproportionately to impede their progress. 

The value of science education as a base for wider employability is important, but it is equally vital to ensure that skilled, qualified and talented people are not then lost to science through poor practice, lack of support and unconscious and inadvertent deterrents. 

The RSC launched a second edition of its good practice report on 14 July 2008: Planning for Success - Good Practice in University Science Departments  . UKRC was pleased to be present at the event, which further illustrated the RSC’s commitment to improving the working culture in academic science. 

Forty seven per cent of new chemistry graduates, and 20 per cent of physics graduates, are women. But only 6 per cent of chemistry professors, and 5 per cent of physics professors, are women. In physics the key is to persuade girls to take up physics; in chemistry the issue is to encourage women to stay in chemistry after graduation.  

The UKRC is now working with learned societies, including the RSC, on issues of women and science. The RSC is one of the leading bodies in researching the experiences of women in science and in turning findings into specific guidance.  

Improving the environment 

The first edition of the RSC’s good practice report, published in 2004, gave specific examples of good practice. York’s chemistry department provided one of the best examples, showing how flexibility in the workforce and a better work environment had resulted in a high proportion of female academic staff. The department’s achievements were recognised with the first gold award from Athena Swan (Scientific Women’s Academic Network), a national scheme for institutes that promotes the career progression of women working in science, engineering and technology. 

Preliminary work by the RSC presented last year showed an alarming trend among PhD students: 72 per cent of women in the first year of their PhDs wanted to carry on in research, but this plummeted to 37 per cent by the third year. In contrast, the proportion of men wanting to pursue research remained at around 60 per cent. 

We worked with the RSC to explore the reasons for this change of heart. The results, in draft form, suggest that women are more affected than men by poor supervision and/or supervisor’s lack of management and interpersonal skills. Women are also likely to experience a lack of integration with their research group, isolation and exclusion, and to feel at odds with the work culture, including working hours and internal competition. While men perceived doctoral research as an initiation, women often found it an ordeal. This led to the view that a research career would prolong this experience, be solitary and non-collaborative, and that short term post-doctoral contracts would be hard to reconcile with relationships and family. 

The findings suggested that women do not wish to pursue academic careers because the rewards on offer will not negate the challenge and compromise entailed. The challenge for chemistry is to create a culture where more women want to be research chemists.  

UKRC, RSC and our partners can support action in university departments to understand and address negative and unhelpful environments and behaviours. Staff development training on gender equality and diversity, supervision skills and recognition of the time needed to provide good quality support and supervision, are vital. Improved career development, employability and personal development should be part of the PhD experience. Access to mentors, networks and role models is helpful and UKRC can assist in this. Departments also need to monitor the experiences of their PhD students and make improvements when problems are found. 

As women make up half of the graduate chemists pool it is important that we work to improve their chances to remain and progress in chemistry to give the UK the skilled workforce it needs for the future.  

Annette Williams is director of the UKRC