Successful women chemists and the importance of role models

After last week’s post on why women leave science, I thought it would be appropriate to follow up with a more positive message about the women who do stay in science and have successful careers.

The stories of 26 successful women chemists compiled into a single book, published by the American Chemical Society.

A quick internet search on “successful women in chemistry” led to my discovery of a book with that exact title. No kidding. I checked it out of the library immediately.

Successful Women in Chemistry is published by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and contains the stories of 26 women in mid- to upper-level positions in a plethora of fields, including industry, business, patent law, and even human resources.

Each of the chapters was originally written for a 2003 newsletter series put out by the ACS Women’s Chemists Committee (WCC). The writers are themselves women chemists and active members of the WCC.

As mentioned in my previous post, some women who leave behind their scientific careers report a lack of mentors as one of the deterrents. This book is aimed at taking one step toward correcting that, by introducing up-and-coming women chemists to those who have gone ahead.

The goal of this book is to create a resource where women can find a role model, someone with whom they can relate. Profiling women with a wide diversity of experiences and career opportunities allows the reader to find a common connection.

- Oxford University Press book description

As I flipped through the chapters, I discovered that the writers discuss both the successes as well as the challenges these women faced along the way. Also, instead of focusing exclusively on their professional lives, they also discuss their personal lives, including how they have handled the matter of work/life balance throughout their careers.

Some of the women highlighted in the book worked for a single company their entire careers, moving from one position to another. Others moved into part-time positions in order to focus on raising a family for a period of time before returning to work full-time. Still others moved around into many different positions.

The diversity of career paths reminded me that it is a unique minority of scientists out there who set out on their careers sticking to the one thing they’ve always wanted to do. It seems like more often than not people jump around— and that’s okay!

More resources for women in science

Perusing the rest of my internet search findings, I discovered there are a lot of websites dedicated to the topic of women in science. Here’s my summary of a few of them:

  • CareerWISE: A resource for graduate women in chemistry— just create an account and tap into a wealth of resources on topics ranging from advisor issues to work/life balance, motivation, sexual harassment, and more.
  • About.com has a page titled Women in Chemistry: A list of more than 70 prominent women in chemistry, past and present.
  • Successful Women, Successful Science (pdf): An article that discusses common myths about the gender differences in the sciences and the stories of 11 successful women scientists.
  • Women-Related Websites in Science/Technology: The title says it all—someone found every website out there and linked to it here. Amazing.
  • An article in Science about the importance of role models and mentors for women in science.

The documentary "Miss Representation," about the negative portrayal of women in the media, airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network tonight (October 20th) at 9 pm ET. Check out all the details at http://missrepresentation.org/

The media is not helping

While we’re on the topic of the role models, I need to put a plug in for a documentary that’s airing tonight (October 20th) on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

It’s called Miss Representation and it’s a film that speaks out against the degrading and offensive ways women are portrayed by the media and advertising, and the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in many sectors.

Check out this blog post, written by Marianne Schnall at the Huffington Post, that’s all about the film. Marianne interviews the writer/director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, as well as several film participants who are prominent women in many sectors of society and politics.

The phenomenon of the negative portrayal of women in the media is so widespread that I have no doubt that it does not help the situation of promoting women in the sciences.

How to be a role model

The message, to everyone, is this: Look around yourself at work, at school, wherever you are, and think about how you can be a positive influence to someone else.

As a woman, I want to send a special message to other women out there— pursue mentors and a support system that will help you succeed. And seek out opportunities to mentor others. Not sure where to start? It’s as simple as asking someone out to lunch, sharing what’s going on, and offering a listening ear.

Note: I’m not saying men don’t need role models too—of course they do. But I am singling out women here just because there are fewer women than men in the sciences overall, so it can take some extra effort for women to find a support system.

Gender issues aside, we all need to be striving to be positive role models to the next generation. If you’re a grad student, there might be undergrads or younger grad students you could reach out to. If you’re working for a company and notice that new guy or gal who is still getting adjusted—put on a smile and ask how they’re doing. You get the idea.

Science is competitive, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be encouraging and friendly to those “beneath” us. After all, we’re all on the same team for scientific progress in society, right?

Every woman profiled in the book Successful Women in Chemistry thanked several mentors for support, advice and encouragement along the way. It’s an important aspect of a successful career that we should talk about more.

Author: Christine Herman

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5 Comments

  1. I read this article with growing interest. Besides, I like that author does not try to avoid some sides of women`s psichology simed sometimes as non complimentary ones. But she offers to account them, and in a whole I think: she is right! It would be well to read in her future publications on mentioned here aspects some specific statistics data.

  2. I enjoyed the article and I am going to get a copy of the book for my classroom. I teach science at an all girls school and it is my main goal to get more girls into sci.

    We participate in the adopt a physicist program where the student converse with successful physicists on an Internet forum. I select all women physicists and use it as a way them to learn from successful women in the field. Been a wonderful experience for my students.

  3. No doubt- as women form an increasing proportion of the STEM workforce, they are tending to drop out or go part-time because of family reasons. But this is not really a free choice; their options are limited by both old-fashioned ideas about the role of men in parenting and old-fashioned ideas on how the workplace should be structured. The men-as-parents problem is gradually getting better, but the workplace structure problem still needs work. Some industries get the value of flexibility but others do not. And curiously, academic institutions are really bad at changing their assumptions that each faculty member has a supportive stay-at-home spouse.

  4. Fantastic article and great resources as usual! That book is going to go on my wishlist for the upcoming holidays, and I’m going to try to bring a copy into my 8th grade classroom.

    @Phoebe Leboy: I believe there was a study recently about Engineering in particular that showed family reasons were actually not a major part of the decision. It was entitled “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering,” put out by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I started to read it thinking very similar thoughts to yours, but much of the data started me thinking about things in a slightly different picture.

    It isn’t chemistry, but there was a fantastic interview with Dame Jocelyn Bell- Burnell, the scientist who discovered Pulsars on the BBC’s program “the Life Scientific” recently for anyone to listen. She discovered pulsars, yet her PhD advisor and head of the department got the Nobel and she didn’t even get a mention. She has some fantastic comments about the state of science then, the state now, and how she in particular handled things. She’s a fantastic role model even for people who aren’t in astrophysics.

  5. Interesting read. Worth sharing among chemists, men & women…

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