Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Women in Chemistry: Progress Made, but Obstacles Remain

The world is in the midst of the International Year of Chemistry 2011 (IYC 2011), a global “celebration of the achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humankind.” An initiative of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the year-long celebration involves chemical societies, academies and institutions worldwide and is aimed at promoting international scientific collaboration. In support of IYC 2011, close to 100 countries registered more than 600 events and 1,200 activities.

The year also is focusing on the contributions of women to chemistry as it coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Madame Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Curie also shared a Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and scientist Henri Becquerel.

Gains and challenges experienced by several SLAS members and their colleagues are representative of how women have moved up the career ladder in chemistry over the years. “In pursuit of female chemists,” a commentary published in the August 18 issue of the journal Nature—as well as feedback from SLAS members—suggests that while some progress has been made, there is still much work to be done.

In the Nature commentary, Carol Robinson of the University of Oxford, U.K., notes, “The decline from chemistry Ph.D.s (46% women) to professorships (just 6%) is steeper than in other disciplines, including physics and engineering.” Equally disappointing, a recent survey concluded that “one-quarter of all 14-years-olds in the United Kingdom confuse Marie Curie with pop singer Mariah Carey.” Robinson suggests a need for new role models for today’s women, noting that “chemistry… has a macho culture in which getting to the finish line first is more important than how you get there.” In addition, she states, “Too often, female scientists shy away from responsible roles or don’t have sufficient confidence or aspirations.”

Some of the same themes—pressure on women to excel, different leadership styles and the need to bring more women into the discipline—were also cited by SLAS members before the Nature commentary’s publication. These members had much to say about some of the key issues facing women in chemistry today. They also suggested solutions.