Speaking up to make the chemical sciences more inclusive

People on a balance

Source: © Sidsel Sorensen/Ikon Images

Supporting everyone to speak up about the challenges they face is an essential part of a supportive chemistry culture

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) recently launched a discussion series entitled Taboos and tricky topics and for a profession predicated on asking difficult questions, we certainly have plenty of these. The series started with discussing how working towards an inclusive science culture was not seen as part of a job in the chemical sciences and could even be harmful to career progression. This is not only worrying but highlights the misconception that inclusion is all about campaigns and posters.

Supporting everyone so they can participate in the chemical sciences is particularly close to my heart. I write this from hospital, six months into treatment in a specialist eating disorder unit. I have suspended my PhD and this is not the first time my scientific career has been impacted by my health. This is in addition to a chronic, but invisible, physical illness that requires me to adjust the way I work. Despite the impact of these illnesses on my life I rarely, if ever, discuss them even with my incredibly supportive supervisor.

I fear that speaking up will mean people judge me as less capable. Considering the time I have taken out of my studies due to illness can you blame them for thinking I may be less reliable? In a culture of ‘publish or perish’ is there room for taking a break?

The chemical sciences can be relentlessly competitive whether it is over publication impact, grant income, or market share; it can feel like only the ‘strong’ belong, yet the RSC’s 2021 report A sense of belonging in the chemical sciences highlighted the importance of making the chemical sciences feel welcoming to all.

Diversity in perspective and experience fosters creativity, innovation and resilience. Diversity of thought requires a diversity of people and for those people to thrive they must be content with their work and the environment they do it in. Happy scientists are more productive and committed to their work and a positive environment fosters communication and collaboration. We need an environment where people can talk about themselves and their challenges without fear of judgment or consequence. I am far from the first person to come to this conclusion and some fantastic initiatives are working towards this.

Enable Science works to highlight chemical scientists with disabilities and the work they do. They aim to encourage open discussion about health and disability to overcome the perceived stigma and enable people to seek support. They also hope to give relatable role models to young people with disabilities who may not feel that ‘people like them’ can become scientists.

The PERIODically podcast series discusses the similarly taboo topic of periods and the challenges faced by chemical scientists who menstruate. I would urge everyone to give it a listen. The series serves as a model of the sort of open conversation we can all aspire to have about subjects that affect us all.

The idea of a profession where ‘if you are passionate, you will make the necessary sacrifices’ is simply unreasonable

Those are just two of many projects working to build the open dialogue needed for all to feel a sense of belonging in the chemical sciences. But inclusion is not something we do only for others, we must first look to ourselves. I have no doubt that everyone reading this has struggled at some point in their life with something they felt they could not share for fear of judgment. Maybe, like me, you worried that your health or circumstances mean that you just aren’t ‘cut out’ for the demands of a profession you love. Sharing these experiences and fears (and solutions found) may empower others to do the same and helps build connection. This is one of the most important steps to making the chemical sciences an inclusive and crucially sustainable place.

Future generations need to see the chemical sciences as a place where they are welcome and can be successful, regardless of their background. Without this, we will lack the richness of thought and experience that diversity brings and there won’t be the people to keep the field alive.

Science needs to be compatible with the lives that people want to live without needing the personal sacrifices which come with job insecurity or frequent relocation (looking at you, postdoc positions). The idea of a profession where ‘if you are passionate, you will make the necessary sacrifices’ is simply unreasonable. Most importantly of all, we need a culture where everyone feels safe to be open about their experiences and challenges without it impacting their career.

I challenge you to take a moment to reflect on your workplace, and what you can do to make it a little more welcoming to those who may feel they don’t belong. Be it checking in on your colleagues, sharing your own struggles, or supporting flexible working, every little change is a step in the right direction.