On women in chemistry careers

Women SciencePolly L Arnold is the Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. She tweets about women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) issues as @ProfArno. The School of Chemistry has been recognised for its excellence in equality and diversity actions by the UK Athena Swan initiative, holding an Athena Swan Gold award since 2012. Find out more about A Chemical Imbalance here: www.chemicalimbalance.co.uk

Women ScienceThe body language in this photograph blew us away. It was one of many that we unearthed from the basement archives in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry. The woman is Dr Christina Miller, a phenomenal analytical chemist, one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a much admired and loved academic.

We didn’t give much thought to identifying the men. We were looking for images and information about the women who had played roles in Edinburgh Chemistry’s long and impressive history of female scientists for my project, ‘A Chemical Imbalance’. The project was funded by a Rosalind Franklin prize from the Royal Society, which I was awarded for my research achievements in chemistry, and to enable me to do something to increase the participation of women in science. Around 50 % of our science undergraduates are female, but the pipeline that feeds talented scientists into the workforce has always leaked women disproportionately, and still only 10 per cent of UK chemistry professors are female. The annual cost to the UK economy of losing brilliant female scientists is estimated as £2bn.  But it’s more than just the money. Research has proven that the most diverse teams produce the most resilient workforces, make the best boardroom decisions, and solve the most difficult scientific challenges.

I grew up with no unconscious bias, and as a scientist, it never occurred to me that people around me were discriminating without meaning to. I thought like many others that if I did really good science, and grew a thick enough skin to survive proposal rejections and the rare examples of overt sexism from the dinosaurs, I would be treated fairly and rise through the ranks with total equality of opportunity. I hadn’t realised that there are so many subtle factors that discourage

After just a couple of years working at Edinburgh, which has a friendly tea room, open to all, with 25p coffee, and a notably large number of female academics, I came to realise that I was wrong. Supported by many male and female colleagues, I realised I could, and should do something: A Chemical Imbalance is short book and documentary film about women in science, which asks why Edinburgh has such a long history of successful female chemists, and why they still remain under-represented in all fields.

It is a call to action to people to demand a workplace that is a good place for women, and as a result minorities and everyone, to thrive. The film premiered as part of Edinburgh School of Chemistry’s tercentenary celebrations on at the same time as we released the book and launched the website www.chemicalimbalance.co.uk where both the book and film are also archived, along with a distillation of four action points to drive progress towards equality of opportunity in the workplace:

  • Monitor our numbers:

Monitoring is not about establishing quotas, it’s about removing an unconscious bias. We’ve nearly eradicated overt dinosaur sexism but research studies show consistently subconscious biased behaviour in many subject areas. We need to know ourselves and our biases to avoid lapsing back into hiring in our own image. Project Implicit is a superb resource to get to know one’s own biases.

  • Mentor our people and make sure the best are applying:

The only thing that marked out Edinburgh as different that I could discern, and the point that came up repeatedly in interviews is the effect that mentoring can have.  While I understand that everyone’s busy and academics are mostly introverts, communicating with our growing young talents is crucial. The saying goes that women wait until they’re 120 % ready but men wait until 80 %: if our youngsters perceive themselves not to be good enough, even if it’s not true, we’ve already lost them. And many hiring panels could also benefit from a little mentoring. The Royal Society’s new diversity committee has just release this excellent reminder for hirers.

  • Create a workplace that supports everyone and allows flexibility:

Creating a workplace in which everyone wants to work is something I’d like to change about society, not just the odd chemistry department. Allowing human beings a little flexibility to deal with all the messy parts of their lives might give our brains the space to come up with even better science. The Athena Swan charter is designed not just to reward, but to help establishments achieve this.

  • Reclaim the meaning of feminism:

Asking interviewees about the F-word was a huge shock for me. The edit of the answers we received made me laugh out loud. I felt naïve. And then angry. ‘Duh, yes’, ‘no’, ‘och no’, ‘yes absolutely’, ‘no’, ‘ooh, um no’, ‘yes’.. But mostly nos. Everyone was in agreement on all the other difficult themes we probed, but hardly anyone admitted to being a feminist.


Within the first few weeks, the site had received nearly 11000 visits from across the globe, and the book and film have been reviewed and discussed in science journals including Nature Chemistry and learned society journals of the UK and US Chemistry and Chemical Engineering News and Chemistry World, (combined readership of 150 000). Last year, the film was shown and discussed as part of the Launch of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. We receive a few hundred visits to the website every month (just under 50% of visitors from the UK, and visits from chemists in 124 countries) and I receive on average one contact every month from a ‘Women in Science’ group representative somewhere around the world, interested in screening the film as part of a group discussion.

And yet, while feminism is receiving increasing press attention, the colleagues who supported me did not consider or call themselves feminists. These rational thinkers still perceived the word as toxic. A label that is too potentially reputationally damaging for a woman. I’m so pleased when men are now proud to call themselves feminists; they are amongst equality’s best allies. It’s now a ‘cool’ label for a man. But for women, it still sits uneasily alongside the bra-burning, dungaree-clad, men-hating epithets. I thought that millennials were now all proud feminists until I looked outwith my middle-class, social media – filled bubble. Young women who see so little overt sexism think that the problems have been solved, and do not stop to call out unconscious bias. Unconscious bias may be even more dangerous to achieving equality of opportunity in science that we admit, if it wipes out feminism.

I am convinced that it is dangerous for women in science not to label ourselves as feminists. We need to normalise the label, and prove that it’s about equality and data, not anger and unfairness.