Such perceptions are not uncommon among women at this career stage in the United States. However, this examination took place not in the United States but in the United Kingdom.5,6 That the perceptions in that country so closely echo those that have emerged from similar studies in the United States raises the question, of course, of how general these outcomes are across a wide swath of countries and cultures. This critical question is what underlies the ongoing effort to collect data about the status of women chemists across a range of countries.
Although recent years have witnessed measurable gains by women in receiving first and advanced university degrees in the chemical sciences,7 the progress of women chemists through their careers, as in most other science and engineering fields, continues to lag behind those of men worldwide.8 Gender disparities persist in pay, promotion rates, and access to certain areas of specialization, and women are often excluded or underrepresented in research and in key leadership positions. The consequence is the inability to have the largest pool of people from whom to draw the top talent required to address global economic and societal challenges, and to sustain a country’s global economic competitiveness. In the United States, increased competition from Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, and South American and Asian countries—all of which have been making more strategic investments in chemistry research and education—poses a growing concern for policy-makers.
While increasing the participation of and leadership by women in all STEM9 fields is vital, it is especially critical in the chemical sciences for two important reasons. First, the fundamentals of the chemical sciences underpin advances in many other scientific and technical arenas: biology, materials, electronics, environmental sciences, and more. Second, chemical scientists work in a variety of settings, mostly non-academic, not just in those specific to their disciplines. Thus, in addition to recruitment, retention of talented women in the chemical sciences and advancement to positions of leadership across employment sectors is of equal importance. Notwithstanding recent gains, women are lost at each rung along the career ladder, with many highly trained women opting out of careers in chemistry altogether.
Data Collection Challenges
Owing largely to data limitations across the globe, much has remained unknown about the status of women chemical scientists on a global level, in educational attainment, and particularly regarding career outcomes. This is a serious challenge. Understanding the reasons for women’s slow progress, and developing effective policies and programs to advance women in the chemical disciplines, both require robust and reliable data that can be compared across
5 S. Dickinson and J. L. Newsome. 2008. Change of Heart: Career Intentions and the Chemistry Ph.D. Royal Society of Chemistry.
6 J. L. Newsome. 2008. The Chemistry Ph.D. The Impact on Women’s Retention. Royal Society of Chemistry and the United Kingdom Resource Center for Women in SET. Available at http://www.rsc.org/ScienceAndTechnology/Policy/Documents/WomenRetention.asp.
7 Hansen, D.J. 2010. Gains Continue for Chemistry Grads. Chemical Engineering News. 88(34):44-54.
9 Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is a commonly used acronym in the United States.