Achieving Gender Balance in the Chemistry Professoriate Is Not Rocket Science

Abstract

Chemistry World warns us that the pipeline of US female chemists is in doubt, reporting on a diversity symposium held at last month’s ACS National meeting in San Diego. Apparently, major research universities are not hiring women at a pace that would achieve a critical mass (e.g., 30%) in my lifetime, and at some top-flight universities the numbers remain so low that you can count them on one hand. This has not changed much over the last few decades, raising alarm bells and begging the question, why is it so hard to populate the ranks of chemistry department faculty with women? It is a subject that many groups and individuals both wiser and more informed than I have written about. Some put blame on an underrepresentation of women in chemistry graduate programstheir numbers hover around 27%. But even compared to this pool, women’s representation in academia remains stubbornly low, especially in the upper ranks where many departments still boast numbers of tenured female faculty between zero and two. Looking at this situation from the outside, you can understand why a graduate student might suspect that she will run up against an extraordinary effort to exclude women from the chemistry academy. I mean seriously, in an age when we fly by Pluto and send President Jimmy Carter’s metastatic melanoma into remission, how is it that we cannot figure out how to hire and promote female professors of chemistry? When I posed this question to the Twittersphere, some interesting statistics came to light. One follower reported that his chemistry department held a faculty search this year, and of the 91 applicants, 12 were womenthat’s a mere 13%. Other anecdotes suggest this is a common outcome in chemistry faculty searches. Such figures are consistent with a report by Jessica Lober Newsome for the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology and the Royal Society of Chemistry: “The chemistry PhD: the impact on women’s retention”. She notes that men and women in UK PhD programs start their graduate work enthusiastic about the prospect of a career in the chemistry professoriate, but “by the third year, the proportion of men planning careers in research had dropped from 61% to 59%...for the women, the number had plummeted from 72% in the first year to 37% as they finish their studies.” And these numbers include research careers in both academia and industry. The proportion of female advanced PhD students who saw academia as their preferred choice? Just 12%. This paltry figure prompted Curt Rice reporting in The Guardian to ask the question, “Why are universities such unattractive workplaces?” This is a question best answered by the women who considered academic careers and then, ultimately, chose other paths. Lober Newsome’s interviews revealed the recurring theme of “supervision issues, which they felt powerless to resolve”. What that essentially boiled down to was difficulty dealing with advisors with poor management skills, interactions with whom eroded their students’ selfconfidence and morale. Whereas male students saw this as a transient rite of passage, women were simply demoralized and saw life outside academia as a reprieve from such oppression. Other common themes were feelings of isolation and exclusion and concerns about a culture of extreme work patterns and intragroup competition. And women are bombarded with negative messaging about the challenges they will face and the sacrifices they will make should they pursue the academic path: the price you will pay for work-life balance, the “mom penalty” and the ironic disadvantage that befalls those who capitalize on family friendly tenure policies. With such expectations, I am not sure I would have wanted this job either! So indulge me as I counter this ominous messaging with an alternative perspective. Graduate school is where you learn about yourself as a scientistyour strengths and weaknesses, how you think about problems, how to interact with and motivate your colleagues, and how you can make impact in this world. You might also learn that certain styles of management lie in opposition to your needs. Those are data points that will inform how you interact with your own junior colleagues as you mature into leadership roles yourself. Many women pursue PhDs in the first place because, like me, they crave autonomyautonomy of

DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.6b00102

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Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Bertozzi2016AchievingGB, title={Achieving Gender Balance in the Chemistry Professoriate Is Not Rocket Science}, author={Carolyn R Bertozzi}, booktitle={ACS central science}, year={2016} }