A Chemical Imbalance: Gender and Chemistry in Academia

As an undergrad preparing for med school, I fell in love with chemistry, thanks in large part to a quirky gen chem professor. He convinced me that a biochem major would be great for pre-med. That department became my home for 3 years. It was fantastic, and I found my true interest in science. And I never felt that there was anything unusual about being a woman pursuing chemistry. In grad school, that changed.

I’ve often wondered what flipped the switch. Perhaps the first clue was the fellowship offer that had the goal of increasing representation of women and minorities in the field. That initiated higher awareness of the disparities in my field, which expanded as I talked to peers and just took a look around.  There were several women in my grad school class (going through the group in my head, 10 years later, I think we were pushing 40%). But at the time, there was one woman on tenure-track in the department. Another joined the department after my first year. Scanning through the faculty listings today, my undergrad department (undergrad focus with M.S. and small Ph.D. programs) is more than 25% women; my grad program looks to be around 10-15%.

My Ph.D. department is fairly representative of the faculty breakdown in physical sciences, according to the most recent NSF data. Life sciences perform better, with about 30% female faculty. Across disciplines, it’s not just that there are far fewer female faculty, but they earn less than their male colleagues. This phenomenon is not restricted to the US. A Chemical Imbalance is a short documentary and e-book looking at the history of female chemists at the University of Edinburgh. In the UK, less than 10% of STEM faculty are women. The Department of Chemistry at Edinburgh boasts 25%.

The film, less than 15 minutes long, looks at the milestones of the department’s female faculty. It also takes a brief look at the two big questions: Why do numbers of women in the faculty ranks remain low (and drop off further at upper levels), and what should be done to change the landscape? The creators provide four action points for a start. Here’s why I think they matter.

Monitor our numbers.

Paying attention to the numbers is not about establishing quotas. It’s about removing a perception bias. The issue of gender parity in STEM receives a great deal of attention. Many institutions respond, in part, by saying, “Hey, look at all these great female faculty we have here!” I think this gives many individuals the idea that there are far more female faculty than there actually are.

Periodically, for one reason or another, my boss and I will end up on the topic of gender bias in science. My boss is very supportive of women in science, but inevitably he asks the question, “Do you really think that gender bias is still a problem?” I always respond with an unequivocal “yes”. Recently he responded, “But what about department at [Top Research U]? And I’m sure that our [molecular department] must be getting close to 50%.” I crunched the numbers. The department is almost perfectly average: 28% female faculty.

We are making progress, but it is slow and incremental. It is not proceeding in the leaps and bounds that we perceive from our institutions’ press and from our own inherent biases. We are scientists. We consider data before making claims in our research. Let’s do the same elsewhere.

Mentor our people and make sure the best are applying.

In biochemistry, women are selecting out at the faculty application phase. The factors most often cited are family and work-life balance issues. I don’t doubt these are real concerns, but I think there are much deeper issues. We know that there is gender bias. We keep hearing that, as women, we have to work harder, publish more, win more grants, etc. to compete with men – and then we’ll likely get less money for it. Some of us have run up against either implicit or explicit bias, which can make the environment feel hostile. Owing in part to socialization, women negotiate differently – and less – and I suspect that this extends seeking out mentoring.  Oh, and then, there’s impostor syndrome. Mix all this together, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that women are stepping off the tenure track. Maybe this should be a wake-up call to mentoring.

But it’s not just prospective applicants that need mentoring. Hiring and promotions committees could use some guidance too. Every one of us, regardless of gender, carry some form of bias. Studies in multiple fields consistently show gender bias in hiring decisions, and the sciences are no exception. It’s important to be aware of our biases so that we can combat them. Departments need to make sure that they are giving equal consideration regardless of gender.

Create a workplace that supports everyone and allows flexibility.

This doesn’t focus on family or on women, and I think it’s all the more important for that reason. Shockingly scientists are people, complete with all the messy, complicated lives of people. Health, family, mental wellness… we all have things that aren’t science that command time and attention. Science is a long, slow process. Allowing flexibility to deal with the rest of life might just keep scientists more engaged and make their science better.

Reclaim the meaning of feminism.

For a long time, I never considered myself a feminist. It wasn’t that the word carried a negative connotation. It just wasn’t exactly part of my vocabulary. It wasn’t until I delved in the blogosphere and Twitterverse that I began to understand what feminism means. And why it matters so much. Feminism is not about quotas and misandry. It’s about equal rights and opportunities. We still have to talk about this because, despite our sense of enlightenment, we simply do not view the same work by a man and woman equally. This needs to change.

And there are even larger disparities to address with regard to underrepresented minorities, who account for less than 5% of full professors at research universities. Some of the issues are different, some may be similar. But if we’re going to address parity, we need to work towards parity for all.

A final note


The documentary focuses on gender parity in chemistry in academia. But the issues extend to other fields and sectors. Without serious consideration to these issues, the sciences will continue to lose talent and a major investment of time and money. Institutions should take steps to make their processes and departments more balanced and supportive. Mentors contribute to the environment and should be invested in making sure their best trainees are applying. However, it’s important that mentors don’t overcompensate and (unintentionally) leave women feeling guilty for leaving academia, if that is their ultimate choice. The goal is for scientists, both male and female, to apply for the best position for them and to be given equal consideration, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Like much of science, the process is slow and long, but we just need to keep chipping away at it.

Don’t forget to check out the documentary A Chemical Imbalance.




This entry was posted in barriers, biomedical workforce, career decisions, diversity, women in STEM. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Chemical Imbalance: Gender and Chemistry in Academia

  1. Gemma says:

    As a chemist in a very male dominated field, I find it frustrating at how much talk there is about monitoring numbers and creating work-life balance (although these are very important) and how little practical action is taken.

    The biggest driver from academia for me is how in some research labs, the quality of mentoring and opportunities offered are related to personal likes of the mentor. I’d prefer that the opportunities offered to me related to my ability, not whether I go drinking with, or play soccer with my PI. While I’m sure that no harm is meant by the PI, it can be very exclusionary for those who are not into these activities, especially if such extracurricular time is a hefty proportion of the time a PI has available for their students.

    Practical things that could be done to help…

    Departments could have postdoctoral conference grants that anyone could apply for and would be assessed by a panel, rather than decisions about travel money and discussion of the opportunity to present being purely down to the PI. Special opportunities, workshops, summer schools could be publicized and openly applied for in this manner, rather than relying on closed nominations by a PI. Maybe the same (best) candidates would still get to go, but it would least add transparency to the process.

    Departments could organize workshops or resource packs to train in skills like grant writing, presentation skills, reviewing so that everyone can have access to this support, regardless of whether a PI consciously or unconsciously thinks that the student is worth spending the time on.

    Departments could actually act if it was widely known that Prof. X’s students were struggling, or really look into what is happening if one of Prof. Y’s students makes a complaint about problems in the reserch group. So often these things are swept under the carpet. And, if they really wanted to help, departments could sponsor extra daycare spaces and offer summer camps and after school care.

    I know some universities and research centres do these things, but not all, and they can make a difference to the progression of “less traditional” students who maybe are less likely to be identified as having potential to succeed.

    • biochembelle says:

      Gemma – I think you’re right that the mentoring issue is a big one, for both men and women. But what’s often overlooked is the importance of “informal” mentoring, which happens in those times like going for a beer or a soccer match, as you point out. There’s also the issue of checking perception against reality, with regard to the amount of time and mentoring provided.

      From the other side, I think we have to keep in mind that mentoring doesn’t have to – and shouldn’t – come solely from our advisors. It’s important to find mentors outside our labs, which is something that I personally struggle with, for a multitude of reasons.

      Ultimately we need action, not just talk, promises, and token efforts, if there’s going to be a real change.

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  5. VixenVena says:

    Although I was aware of the gender imbalance at all levels throughout my scientific career, I never faced gender discrimination until actually becoming a faculty member. Our department has about 16% female faculty. The discrimination ranges from overt to subtle. Perhaps it is limited to the department I am in, but I’m beginning to think it is the norm. There are the usual blatant sexual harassment and occasional off color comments – that stuff at least is obvious. It’s the covert gender bias that is really bad. The women in the department are put on committees that have no impact in decision making. Often we are assigned fluffy committees like plan grad student dinners. When we do searches for new hires, they appoint someone to make sure there is no bias against women or minorities – that guy is a white male. Do you think he does his job in makings sure searches aren’t unfair – hell no. All committees that have any influence over the department are all 100% male and never include the token minority male. Overcoming this garbage isn’t going to happen…

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