If you answered yes to the question in the title, a recent report suggests you may be a chemist, and more specifically a female chemist. A study carried out by the UKRC for the RSC about the PhD experience for chemists reveals some fairly unattractive facts that should give heads of chemistry departments serious pause for thought. In particular it can be seen from the figure reproduced here just how precipitous is the fall off in women who intend to continue in research during the 3 years of their PhD, with the figure approximately halving. In contrast, the number of men who agreed they wanted to continue in research, whilst it started off at a lower initial figure, was almost unchanged between years 1 and 3 and actually peaked in the second year. Here is food for thought for people who care about the loss of talent from the pool, and who look at the leaky pipeline in dismay. What makes the chemistry PhD experience such a particular turn-off for women?
- Proportion of respondents intending to pursue research on completing doctoral study by year and gender
This report builds on earlier work, dating back to 1999 (a report entitled Factors affecting the career choices of graduate chemists), and a later report (which I cannot find on the web) in 2008 explicitly looking at career choices by gender. The leaky pipeline seems worse in chemistry than other subjects, something that was reinforced by last year’s study about postdoctoral experiences in physics and chemistry which I wrote about here where, once again, female chemists were much less happy and much less sure they wanted to continue in research/academia than their male counterparts. A 2008 report comparing chemistry and biochemistry PHd student experiences likewise demonstrated that chemistry students (female) were less satisfied overall. The discipline of chemistry seems out of line with other subjects when it comes to how women experience it.
The current report is based on interviews with men and women during their (chemistry) PhD’s, both as individuals and in small groups, and the results are pretty dispiriting. Even though the numbers involved in these interviews are quite small, the results amply back up prevous findings involving much larger numbers. I will only highlight a few points here, but I would urge the concerned reader to read the report in full – it is fairly short, at least if you don’t read the annex which has many of the actual quotes included. Broadly speaking it is clear that the women were much more likely to be got down by poor supervision, by feelings of isolation and by the slow progress of their research than their male colleagues. But they also seem to have been more likely to feel uncomfortable with the culture ‘especially where the culture was particularly macho’ and not infrequently to feel poorly integrated or even excluded and bullied within their research group.
Now, the more macho supervisors out there may immediately feel that this is due to weakness in the women, that they lack something that makes them suitable for a research career and the sooner they are weeded out the better. That would be to approach the problem via the so-called deficit model which implies that the failing is in women who can’t manage to fit in, integrate and be like the boys. However, perhaps the macho culture weeds out a certain kind of person – who may be male as well as female – and that as a result a reinforcing pattern of unpleasant behaviour, rather than an optimised way of doing research, ensues. It seems to me that a culture within research is deeply flawed which leads to the following statement:
During doctoral study, a larger proportion of female than male participants had formed the impression that the doctoral research process is an ordeal filled with frustration, pressure and stress, which a career in research would only prolong; rather than short-term pain for long-term gain.
Of course this macho culture is not the only thing that women find discouraging. It is inevitable that, for many of them as they look ahead to the uncertainties of short–term contracts if they opt to stay in academic research, they worry about the implications for family life. As a result they
Come to believe they would need to make sacrifices (about femininity and motherhood ) in order to succeed in academia;
Been advised in negative terms of the challenge they would face (by virtue of their gender).
On the former front there should be far more effort put into highlighting those women chemists who have succeeded in combining motherhood (and even femininity) with successful careers. This is something we try to do in Cambridge in various ways, but notably this past week we had a wonderful talk by Carol Robinson, who has undoubtedly succeeded on all these fronts. Here is a woman, an FRS, winner of many prizes, who not only had 3 children (now adult) but took 8 years out of research when they were small. She came to give Cambridge’s Annual WiSETI lecture last week, to a packed audience. This is the sort of life-history that should give hope to all those wavering female chemists who simply believe ‘it can’t be done’. It can.
There are many recommendations made in the report. I single out just a few here:
Training supervisors better, particularly about equality issues but more generally about providing support and encouragement to those starting out on their research careers;
Setting up networks to prevent feelings of isolation and discouragement, and better mentoring perhaps via a buddy system;
Acknowledging the role postdocs may play in PhD student supervision, but also ensuring they too receive training and also recognition of this important role;
Assessing departments on the basis of the quality of their students’ training and the quality of their experience, for instance through Athena Swan awards.
Which brings me full circle. This report was originally coordinated by Sean McWhinnie and Sarah Dickinson, when they were employed at the RSC. They both left several years ago. Sarah at that point joined us in Cambridge as the WiSETI project officer, a role she fulfilled admirably and with her last main task being the WiSETI lecture I mentioned above. She has now moved on again and will be heading up the Athena Swan team at ECU and so, in principle, could move to include the PhD experience in assessment criteria. However, it is very clear that Athena Swan is going to have its work cut out for the foreseeable future, with a flood of new departmental applications anticipated in the months ahead. This is a direct result of Dame Sally Davies’ requirement of Clinical Schools that they have Athena Swan Silver awards in order to be likely to receive further funding (as I described here), accompanied by other funders making noises that they may follow suit in some shape or form. Consequently, I suspect that Athena Swan may not make such changes fast.
However, let us hope that chemistry department heads read this report and reflect about what they can locally do.This and previous reports suggest there is something peculiar about chemistry as a discipline that makes things seem so particularly tough for women. Indeed, as some of the comments in the annex to the report make clear, synthetic chemistry seems even worse than other sub-disciplines. If asked to speculate, I would suggest this may be because groups in synthetic chemistry tend to be very large, with PhD students being seen simply as a useful pair of hands. It is all too easy for the individual’s needs to get lost in such a synthesis factory. Nevertheless, for the good of future research I hope that something will be done to improve the working atmosphere for everyone, and not just perpetuate a certain type of machismo.