The chemistry of equality

21 December 2018

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Women make up fewer than 10% of the UK’s chemistry professors. That’s a lower ratio of women to men than FTSE 100 boardrooms, senior civil service positions or even professorships as a whole1...

Many observers within the sector have already noticed the effects of the ‘leaky pipeline’ that sees scores of female chemists leave academia early in their careers or not progressing to senior roles. The Royal Society of Chemistry launched a study to find out why, and learned that 99% of female chemists in UK academia can evidence the lack of retention and progression of women – as can 94% of men.

The study, Breaking the Barriers4, uncovered a number of factors, including accounts of bullying and discrimination, lack of infrastructure to report issues and a lack of support for young parents and carers.

After launching the report, the Royal Society of Chemistry has decided to become a first mover in taking a stand against the cultural and organisational barriers holding women back, announcing plans for a new carers’ fund, a helpline and an awards scheme to recognise those taking a stand against inequality at the highest levels of the profession.

While the issue of gender equality is a hot topic in many professions, there are some challenges unique to chemistry. Unlike other disciplines, the gender balance at undergraduate level is almost equal – around 44% of undergraduate chemistry students in the UK are women2. This should be a strength and a platform to build on. Yet it is clear that there is an issue in retaining these women and enabling them to progress to senior or leadership roles. 

Jo Reynolds, director of science and communities at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "It is shocking that only 9% of chemistry professors in the UK are women. Clearly, between undergraduate study and reaching senior positions in academia in the UK, the relative proportion of female chemists drops by 35 percentage points."

"It was quite a shock to me to realise that what people are reporting 20 years since I left academia is familiar to me – and particularly disappointing to see that little has changed. I was very passionate about my science and loved research but I struggled to see role models at a senior level who I could identify with."

In compiling its report, the Royal Society of Chemistry gathered data from more than 1,800 people across the chemistry community, including those who left academia for a career in industry. It later held a number of focus groups and stakeholder interviews.

The barriers identified were extensive and varied, affecting women differently at different stages in their careers.

One of the main barriers cited in Breaking the Barriers is the prevalence of short-term contracts, related to funding and fellowship grants available for early-stage researchers – 78% of those surveyed felt that the short-term nature of these contracts impacts women’s retention and progression. The same percentage also said that managing parenting and caring responsibilities has an impact.

These two issues are closely linked – the lack of stability and constant need to relocate was found to be highly off-putting for those looking to start a family or with caring responsibilities for elderly relatives. Inadequate funding for paid parental leave, provision of maternity cover or part-time working compound the problems. While this affects both men and women, women are still more likely to be primary carers3, and so these barriers disproportionately push women out of the sector.

Another concern was the way in which excellence is recognised and measured in academia. Most researchers will have heard the term ‘publish or perish’ and many funding and promotion decisions are still driven by the number and quality of papers a researcher has published.

Many respondents felt this is outdated and efforts and success in areas such as teaching, mentoring and supervision, and academic citizenship activities such as Athena SWAN and Research Excellence Framework (REF) submissions should also be recognised. Women reported being more heavily involved in these ‘undervalued’ activities than men, taking time away from their research and limiting their progression.

The RSC’s report found these issues are exacerbated by inconsistent management and lack of clear HR support within chemistry departments in the UK. Respondents cited insufficient access to managers, inadequate management training and limited policies around parental leave and part-time and flexible working opportunities.

Perhaps most troubling, the report highlighted cases of discrimination, bullying and harassment - alongside a systemic failure across the sector to deal with these issues effectively, prompting the RSC to launch a new dedicated helpline next year.

According to Reynolds, "While we didn’t actively seek information about bullying and harassment in our research, we received a lot of reports, with many people saying they did not feel comfortable reporting their experiences because of the possible impact on their career progression. Given that we have had this feedback, as the professional body for the chemical sciences, we feel we have a moral obligation to act."

Reynolds goes on to say that the helpline will give the RSC a clearer indication of the scale of the problem, and help pinpoint any areas of concern to be prioritised. "We can’t stop at just uncovering this issue, we have to find out the true extent of the problem and work with others to address it. These measures will help us do that."

"This isn't only about supporting women, it's about creating an environment that allows everybody to achieve their potential. I'm not sure that the academic system currently has the right incentives built in to make sure that happens."

One of those to have experienced many of the issues highlighted in the report is Anna Cupani, of London. She has now left academic chemistry, working as an engagement manager in a data science lab, but said the report was particularly poignant.

She said: "While my experience was broadly positive, I had a couple of experiences in which being a woman probably contributed to me feeling quite isolated. I can recognise and relate to everything that was identified in the report, either having happened to me personally or to friends or colleagues.

"Speaking out is difficult as a young scientist because you put your whole career at risk. We tend to think that hardship is a part of the career, and it isn’t. That’s why a support network would be so valuable."

Referring directly to the report’s findings on bullying, Anna said: "I can’t point to any one thing, but when I explained what I went through to a friend, I felt silly for not seeing it. It wasn’t outward aggression, it was microaggressions.

"For example, booking equipment in the lab for a certain time, only to be told that I hadn’t booked it and someone else was using it. I was never invited for lunch – so one day I asked to join the team for lunch and was told ‘no problem’ only for everyone to speak to each other in a language I didn’t understand. It felt quite lonely.

"People don’t feel they can talk about it, which is why it’s great the Royal Society of Chemistry is taking a stand. People often feel it’s just them – and being so open about it helps people realise it’s not something that just affects them. We need to face up to this issue now or it will just carry on."

As well as launching grants for carers and the harassment helpline, the RSC will work closely with chemistry departments across the UK to support them in implementing effective policies to better support their staff, and will run a programme of annual recognition for departments that improve their culture.

The report also includes recommendations for funders, including UKRI and the Research Councils, to address the issues of short-term contracts and enforce a zero-tolerance approach to any individuals or institutions that show evidence of bullying or harassment.

"I think it's a really exciting time because I think we're pushing at an open door," says Reynolds.

"When we speak to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, UK Research and Innovation and other societies, we know that these are issues that they are aware of and want to address. We want to work closely with them and we need that partnership because this is a systemic issue and cultural change is not easy."

As part of a five-point plan to address the issues raised in their report, the RSC is launching a grant scheme for carers, providing funds to enable those with caring responsibilities to attend conferences and meetings vital to their career progression. The grants will be launched in early 2019.

As well as publishing the report, the RSC has launched a campaign on social media, #ChemEquality, asking people to share their experiences and success stories. A copy of the report can be found online4.

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