The world of academia is a very tough one, with real funding problems. Particularly as a woman, this really puts me off it. As well as the long hours required, necessity to travel to conferences regularly as group leader, the battle for funding would not go well with hopes to have children one day.
The comment above comes from a woman respondent to a survey of chemistry doctoral students published in 2008. Although the more than 650 responses revealed considerable concern by both men and women about their futures as researchers in the chemical sciences, women expressed more reservations than men. For example, the proportion of women Ph.D. students planning a science-related career fell from 85 percent in the first year to 79 percent in the third year, while the proportion of men increased from 73 to 86 percent in the same period. More strikingly, the proportion of women who planned a career as a research chemist fell from 72 percent in the first year to 37 percent in the third, while the proportion of men remained about the same (61 to 59 percent). Of those women who were planning a research career, 51 percent intended during their first year of graduate study to stay in academia, but this proportion fell to 33 percent in the third year. The drop in men’s interest was smaller: 44 to 36 percent from the first to the third year. Overall, only about 12 percent of women planned to remain in academia compared to 21 percent of men.
Focus groups and interviews with participants in the survey established some of the reasons for these findings. These included inadequate or sometimes hostile supervision, a sense of isolation and exclusion, various implied messages that questioned their competence, and the “macho” environment for doing research. For an academic career, women perceived that the potential rewards were insufficient incentives to overcome the challenges and compromises required for success, and that an industrial setting would provide a more compatible environment. Those challenges and compromises included the all-consuming and insufficiently collaborative requirements for success, challenges to building of family and other relationships, and advice from others that they were likely to be less competitive by virtue of their gender.
1 Robert Lichter, principal, Merrimack Consultants, LLC.
2 Willie Pearson, Jr., professor, School of History, Technology, and Society, Georgia Institute of Technology.
3 Lisa J. Borello, Ph.D. candidate, School of History, Technology, and Society, Georgia Institute of Technology.
4 Janet L. Bryant, scientist and engineer IV, National Security Directorate, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
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.
countries and cultures. Doing so can reveal common factors that can facilitate shared solutions across national boundaries, and uncover factors unique to a national or cultural setting that may require unique approaches.
Four major hurdles to collecting the required data emerged during the course of this project. First is the absence of much data altogether. Many countries simply do not collect data on the status of women scientists at all, or do so in only a limited way. Second, where data are available, they are often not disaggregated into individual disciplines but are combined, for example, into general areas such as physical sciences or biological sciences. Third, where data for individual disciplines are collected, they are often not comparable across national borders because of the disparate nature, degree of completeness, assignment of responsibility, and methodological inconsistency of data collection across regions. No sole entity has taken the lead for gathering and analyzing global data on education and labor market trends, not only in the chemical sciences, but also for STEM fields in general.
Fourth, no consensus on an operational definition of a chemist exists beyond the notion that “a chemist is what a chemist does.” For many, “chemical sciences” generally includes chemistry and closely related sciences that are grounded in fundamental chemical principles. These may include, for example, biochemistry, materials sciences, biophysical chemistry, chemical biology, and some areas of nanosciences. In some cases, these fields are considered separately; in others, they may be classified into chemistry, biology, physics, or even some engineering fields. These differences make cross-national comparisons difficult. Furthermore, because chemists work in a variety of venues, most of which are outside the more-easily counted academic settings, surveys can often overlook them.
Nonetheless, within these constraints, meaningful data can still be extracted that allow some cross-cultural comparisons. Sources of data include journal publications, government reports and statistics, reports compiled from professional organizations and technical societies, and personal inquiries to contacts in other countries. The National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators is a particularly rich source of limited global information available.
An example of the desired kinds of comparisons is given in Table E-5-1. Trends over a number of years (not given here) demonstrate that the percentage of women receiving first and third degrees in chemistry has been increasing steadily. Table E-5-1 shows the percentage of women receiving first (bachelors) and third (doctorate) degrees in three Western countries: Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Table E-5-1 also compares these numbers with the percentage of women on chemistry doctoral faculties in the same countries. The close tracking of the percentage of degrees awarded to women among the three countries, and the comparable drop in the percentage of women faculty members, suggest the existence of common factors that require further examination.
TABLE E-5-1. Percent of First and Doctorate University Degrees in Chemistry Awarded to Women, and Percent of Women on Academic Chemistry Faculties in Doctoral Institutions, 2008
* Data for 2009, doctoral institutions only.
SOURCES: Schmitz, K. 2009. Hochschullehrnachwuchs und Professorinnen. 2008. Nachrichten Chemie. 57:463-465 (April), and “Who is Teaching Whom?” Complete Report on the Fall 2009 Committee on Professional Training Survey of Faculty Status. American Chemical Society. Fall 2010. Available at http://portal.acs.org/portal/PublicWebSite/about/governance/committees/training/reports/cptreports/CNBP_025912.
Steps Toward Change
The slow pace of change in the status of women chemists does not imply that no attempts have been made to effect positive change. In the United States and elsewhere, a variety of governmental and private efforts, not outlined here, have been in place for some years. Since 1994, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society has offered Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships annually to early-career scientists who do not yet hold permanent positions and who require flexibility in their working patterns because of personal matters such as childbirth and parenting, family care responsibilities, or health issues.10 The intent is to keep promising younger scientists, especially women, engaged in science on a part-time basis even while they attend to such personal issues. Stipends are relatively generous and include funds for research-related activities, and the term can last up to four years. Regrettably, only ten of these are awarded each year across a number of scientific disciplines, so the systemic impact is obviously limited. In Germany, both the chemical industry and the unions representing their workers have jointly created a number of programs for advancing women chemists in industry, and for addressing work-life balance issues.11
10 The Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship program page is available at: http://royalsociety.org/grants/schemes/dorothy-hodgkin.
11 National Chemistry Employers Association (BAVC) and the Mining, Chemistry, and Energy Workers Union (IG BCE), “Chancengleichheit im Betrieb: Umsetzung und Erfahrungen,[online].” Report of a 1999 Conference on Women in German industry, Progressdruck, Speyer, Germany, August 2000. Available: http://www.cssa-wiesbaden.de/fileadmin/Dokumente/chancengleichheit.pdf, accessed 12/22/2011; and Wolfgang Goos and Veronika Keller-Lauscher, “Chancengleichheit in der Chemischen Industrie,[online]” Buchdruckwerkstätten Hannover GmbH, Hannover, Germany, January 2002. Available:
http://www.bavc.de/bavc/web/web.nsf/id/pa_publ_chancengleichheit.html. [Accessed 12/22/2011] .
The examples presented here are intended to give a flavor of the data and comparisons sought in the ongoing project, and underscore the need for broader-based data collection and examination. Even if relevant data turn out not to be generally available, the questions that arise are expected to propel the necessary efforts to generate those data, and thus shape policies and programs internationally that can advance women, and make their influence more visible, in the chemical sciences.