Guest Repost: “A Chemical Imbalance- Gender and Chemistry in Academia” by Biochem Belle

I’m pleased to bring you another guest re-post from Biochem Belle. She’s previously shared her writings about letting up on the pressures we place on ourselves in science professions. This time, her post is about A Chemical Imbalance, a new 15-minute documentary that looks at gender parity in academe through the lens of one university. This post originally appeared at Biochem Belle’s blog, Ever On & On.

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.

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. Nice post, @Biochembelle ! One thing that struck me was the discussion of mentoring (something that is important to me and that I continuously seek out but don’t often find). Do you think that women desire mentoring more often than men? It seems from what you’ve written that women ask to be mentored less often than men. But perhaps they need mentors more? I’m curious what your experience is with this.

  2. Thanks, Belle, for another masterful post. I loved this- “it’s important that mentors don’t overcompensate and (unintentionally) leave women feeling guilty for leaving academia, if that is their ultimate choice.”. One of my mentors from college was a woman who is very established in her career. She’d encouraged me to go to grad school, and even get my MD-PhD. But I remember hearing through the grapevine that she was disappointed that I’d ultimately chosen a communication career. We’ve since talked about it several times and reconciled, and she no longer feels that way. It can be hard to escape feelings of “letting people down”.

  3. Very interesting post and documentary. I ended up interviewing U of Edinburgh’s Yellowlees in 2012 when she took over the RSC presidency, and was rather surprised by her comparisons of parity in the US vs UK. She said that overall she thought the UK was 50 years behind the US.

  4. (But clearly Edinburgh is something of an oasis…)

  5. The bit of the film that really struck me was the statistic that it will take another 70 years to reach gender parity. Seventy years! Maybe that’s not much in the grand scheme of history, but it’s not within my lifetime and possibly not within my children’s. That’s so disheartening.

  6. Lauren, you bring up an interesting question – Are women mentored less, or do women need more mentoring?

    It’s a complex question, and I suspect there’s some relevant social science studies that address this question (but that I know nothing about). A striking thing from the ASBMB survey was that both men and women felt like they needed more mentoring.

    There’s a lot of mentoring that happens when we’re not actively looking for or expecting mentoring – in other words, informal mentoring that happens over drinks or dinner, on the lift up to the top of the ski slopes, during the downtime of a tennis match… It’s the sort of thing that we might not even count as mentoring.

    Based on many anecdotes I’ve heard (see this comment for example), I think “informal” mentoring tends to favor male scientists. Informal mentoring occurs more between individuals with shared experiences & interests. The culture that persists in many fields makes women feel out of place in such environments. Informal mentoring takes place in “off” hours, which can make it difficult for primary caregivers to participate. Then there’s the occasional perception that if a man and woman grab a drink together, then they must be having an affair (and also the concern that if I grab a drink with a male colleague, I have to remain on guard that it remains purely professional).

    So my gut instinct is not that women need or even want more mentoring than men, but rather that there’s a deficit driven by failure to ask and by inherent biases. But I’d love to hear what others have to say (especially if there’s evidence that I’m not familiar with).

  7. A comment from Janet Stemwedel (aka Doc Freeride who blogs at SciAm and Scientopia) via Twitter:

    “I agree that lots of informal mentoring men get is invisible; just part of being welcomed to the community. Plus power of unconscious sexism means that men don’t need as much mentoring b/c they’re assumed more awesome. But making mentoring something we think about, do well consistently should improve things for everyone.”

  8. One thing I faced at a MRU and also at many scientific meetings is the “dudes surrounded by dudes” issue. Where I would have the intention to approach the invited speaker of our weekly departmental seminar and there would literally be a wall of dudes (male postdocs+faculty) around the speaker at all times, making it pretty challenging for me URM grad student at the time to step in and have a somewhat casual exchange. I also lacked an advisor who would facilitate these sort of introductions; and I’m an outgoing and talkative person in most cases. The one thing that I found to help with at least these types of exchanges, and where I got some informal mentoring so to speak, was at the small lunches that were offered for grad students and postdocs. The lunches pretty much forced whomever the invited guest was to chat with everyone and it was quite casual. In any case, the “dudes surrounded by dudes” made it difficult for me to establish professional relationships with other faculty in my department.

  9. Very interesting post and documentary. I ended up interviewing U of Edinburgh’s Yellowlees in 2012 when she took over the RSC presidency, and was rather surprised by her comparisons of parity in the US vs UK. She said that overall she thought the UK was 50 years behind the US.


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