Academic chemistry is a less welcoming environment for women than it is for men

A Canadian friend once told me how his PhD supervisor – a renowned chemist who heads up a lab on the west coast of the US – welcomed him to work on his first day. ’I’m told by HR that all graduate students are entitled to 14 days holiday each year,’ he growled. ’I’d like to know in advance which seven weekends you plan on taking off.’

With his doctorate now safely behind him, my friend is able to see the funny side of the story. The same situation might have looked darker to a female PhD student or postdoc – perhaps about to start a family.

Stories like this matter because chemistry is haemorrhaging talent. A laudably high proportion of women are coming into academic chemistry but many more women than men leave before they reach the highest ranks. In the UK, nearly half of all new chemistry graduates are now women but they only account for 6 per cent of professors. Compare that to physics - a discipline infamous for its gender imbalance - where women make up just 20 per cent of graduates but represent 5 per cent of professors.

’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,’ notes Annette Williams, director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) in this issue.

Simply put, academic chemistry is a less welcoming environment for women than it is for men.

There is evidence that women still experience discrimination when they apply for lectureships, but the problems start much earlier on. Women are more likely than men to feel isolated in their research group and be more badly affected by poor supervision. They also cite the pressure to log long hours in the lab, and chemistry’s onus on competition rather than collaboration as reasons for leaving the field.

According to the RSC, the net result is that while 72 per cent of women in the first year of a chemistry PhD are keen to stay in academe, the figure drops to 37 per cent by the third year. Around 60 per cent of men in their first year want to stay on, and that figure remains unchanged throughout the three years.

The RSC and the UKRC have been looking at how to stem the loss of female chemists. They are encouraging universities to improve the supervision skills of staff and provide female researchers with mentors and role models.

The UK’s Royal Society recently shifted the deadline for one of its grants from September after it realised that the school holidays could disadvantage applicants caring for children. Other research funding bodies should also be ready to change their grant allocation and peer review processes if they find they are disadvantaging female researchers. Small changes add up.

And flexible working, affordable child care and parental leave are as vital to academics as those working in other sectors - perhaps more so, as a publication gap at a critical juncture can mean never being able to get back on the career ladder.

Are such measures necessary? Some might argue that the situation would improve anyway. And that is true. Over the past two decades the number of senior female academics has steadily risen. But on current trends, in the biological sciences, the proportion of women who are professors could approach parity in about 40 years. In chemistry, it will take much longer - perhaps a century. The thousands of talented female chemists graduating this summer cannot afford to wait.

Ananyo Bhattacharya, acting editor