Breaking the Barriers: Achieving Gender Parity in the Chemical Sciences

Welcome to the first in the series of Science London’s look into issues of diversity and equality in STEM.

Gender equality is still something we as a society are striving towards, but different industries have their own struggles and so it is important to see how these sectors are trying to achieve gender parity.

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) launched their report Diversity Landscape of the Chemical Sciences earlier this year and have now released a follow up with: Breaking the Barriers. The report looks at the lack of retention and progression of women in the chemical sciences, but it also examines issues of gender discrimination, racial discrimination, harassment and bullying.

The headline figure from the report states that 99% of female chemists in UK academia can evidence the lack of retention and progression of women – as can 94% of men. This has huge consequences for the industry as well as affecting the pipeline of young talent. Presently, women make up only 44% of undergraduate students in the chemical sciences. This figure decreases to 39% of PhD students and only 9% when looking at the proportion of women who are professors.

The issue of women’s retention and progression is particularly pronounced in the chemical sciences in comparison with other scientific disciplines. Dr Helen Pain, Deputy Chief Executive at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “Talented, hard-working people should not be made to feel that they cannot progress in their field. Yet it is clear from our research in the community that barriers exist when it comes to progression and retention in the chemistry profession, most acutely in academia. As the UK’s professional body for chemical scientists, we are using our position, influence and connections to take the lead, push for accountability and develop best practice.”

Three key barriers were identified by the report:

  • A poor management culture, including unequal workloads, a lack of recognition opportunities, and bullying and harassment.
  • The way research posts are funded creates uncertainty and unnecessary pressure.
  • Practical barriers, such as a lack of opportunities for part-time and flexible working.

The benefit of addressing retention and progression of women is clear to the community itself. More diverse teams will produce better science and will deliver economic benefits through increased productivity. To tackle these barriers, the RSC has developed a five-point action plan, including launching annual recognition for chemistry departments that demonstrate significant progress in inclusion and diversity, improving the exchange of best practice between peers.

Professor Dame Carol Robinson, the first female Professor of Chemistry at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, is President of the Royal Society of Chemistry. She added: “The culture within academia and industry can be problematic for women but there is also an impact on work/life balance for men and we should not overlook this. It is essential that every part of our community works together to make sure chemistry really is for everyone.”

The full report can be viewed online.

Written by Jeanne Kroeger

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