Women in Chemistry—Where We Are Today

Women in Chemistry—Where We Are Today

Dr. Claire D’Andola

DOI: 10.1002/chem.201600474

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Pledge for parity: What is the current status of gender parity in the sciences? And why is it important to discuss it? Herein, we wish to contribute towards a constructive discussion of the issues surrounding gender disparity in science as well as providing practical information about the facts of the issues involved and details of organizations and programs that provide support for women who wish to pursue a scientific career.

Dr. Claire D’Andola

  In 2011 Chemistry—A European Journal published a special issue dedicated to Women in Chemistry as part of the IUPAC/UNESCO International Year of Chemistry initiative. As a follow up and to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th 2016,[1] we are now publishing another issue dedicated to women from around the world currently working in chemical research. We received an overwhelmingly positive response to the conception of this issue and as a result the issue features contributions from 17 countries and contains one Review, one Concept, six Minireviews (frontispiece graphics for these articles are featured on our front cover), 19 Full Papers, and 12 Communications, all featuring a woman as the principle correspondence author.

The breath of topics covered in this issue (from materials and physical chemistry through to organic and biochemistry) is a testament to the quality of research being carried out and led by women in chemistry around the world. The inside cover graphic is provided by B. Martín-Matute and co-workers for their VIP Full Paper article entitled “Selective Heterogeneous C−H Activation/Halogenation Reactions Catalyzed by Pd@MOF Nanocomposites” (see page 3729), the back cover by C. Viñas and co-workers for their HIP Communication article entitled “Carboranylphosphinic Acids: A New Class of Purely Inorganic Ligands” (see page 3665), and the inside back cover by T. Gulder and co-workers for their HIP Communication article “A Fluorination/Aryl Migration/Cyclization Cascade for the Metal-Free Synthesis of Fluoro-Benzoxazepines” (see page 3660). In addition, we have two HIP articles with frontispiece graphics from L. Chi and co-workers for their Communication article entitled “Investigation into the Sensing Process of High-Performance H2S Sensors Based on Polymer Transistors” (see page 3654) and C. Höbartner and F. Javadi-Zarnaghi for their Full Paper article entitled “Functional Hallmarks of a Catalytic DNA that Makes Lariat RNA” (see page 3720). Chemistry—A European Journal is proud to highlight the fantastic contributions women are making to chemistry and hopes that this special issue will help to inspire more young women currently studying at university to pursue a career in research.

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Much has been written on women in chemistry and the focus has often rightly been on the great achievements that have been made by women so far throughout history from the two-times Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity, Rosalind Franklin, chemist and X-ray crystallographer who contributed to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, through to more recent achievements by Ada Yonath who was the latest women to be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2009 for her research into the ribosome.

These women and many others have inspired and continue to inspire many women to pursue a career in chemistry. Our aim is to provide a clearer picture of what the current status of gender parity is in the sciences and why it is important to discuss it. Gender equality can often be a very emotive issue, making the task of discussing issues surrounding its cause difficult for both genders; herein, we wish to contribute towards a more constructive discussion by providing practical information about the facts of the issues involved as well as details of organizations and programs that provide support for women who wish to pursue a scientific career.

We have also asked four academics currently working in the field, Prof. Tom Welton (Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London), Prof. Marina Resmini (Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Queen Mary University of London), Prof. Irina Beletskaya (Professor of Chemistry at Moscow State University and a board member of Chemistry—A European Journal), and Dr. Hildegard Nimmesgern (Chairwoman of the Arbeitskreis Chancengleichheit in der Chemie AKCC, a working group of the German Chemical Society (GDCh) for more equal opportunities and gender equality in chemistry), to provide their personal view on gender parity in chemistry and on what can and is being done to encourage more women to enter and stay in the chemical professions.

Let us start then by asking four basic questions: What does gender parity currently look like in the sciences? Do we really need greater gender parity in the sciences? And, finally, why do women leave scientific research and what can we do to retain them?

What does gender parity currently look like in the sciences?

There are many different sets of statistics on women in science, but in this Editorial we will concentrate on data from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) collected in 2013,[2] which detail that on average only 28 % of the world’s researchers (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects) are women; the global map in Figure 1 details the share of female researchers by country.1

Figure 1.

The gender gap in STEM research (women as a share of total researchers, 2013 or latest year available). Note: Data in this map are based on headcounts, except for Congo, India, and Israel which are based on full-time equivalents). Data for China are based on total R&D personnel instead of researchers. Data for Brazil and Tunisia are based on estimations. Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, October 2015.[2]

A further breakdown of the data, which can be found by using the UNESCO interactive data tool on women in science provides some surprising results.[3] A closer look at Europe (Figure 2), for example, shows that Germany and France are amongst the least representative with only 27 and 26 % female researchers versus smaller Eastern European countries such as Lithuania and Latvia that have reached overall gender parity and can boast of 52 and 53 %, respectively.2

Figure 2.

A breakdown of female researchers in Europe. Female researchers as a percentage of total researchers, 2013 or latest year available. Notes: +1=2014, −1=2012, −2=2011, −3=2010, −4=2009, −5=2008, −6=2007, −8=2005, −9=2004, −10=2003, −11=2002, −12=2001, −13=2000, −14=1999, −16=1997. *=Based on full-time equivalent data. Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, October 2015.[2]

On the positive side, however, this disparity is not present at the bachelor level with Germany and France starting with a more representative 44 and 58 % of female students. A drop is already realized at the Doctorial level (41 and 47 %, respectively, Figure 3), but the real significant drop in numbers of women occurs when we reach the research level with disappointing figures of 27 and 26 %, respectively, being reached (research level, in this case, referring to the number of women who remain in research after completion of their PhD).3

Figure 3.

The ‘leaky pipeline’ of women’s representation in STEM from the bachelor to research level for some of Europe’s largest countries. Blue columns: percentage of men; light to dark green: percentage of women from PhD to research level, respectively. Data source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics.[2]

Interestingly, Lithuania and Latvia both maintain greater than 50 % representation throughout this career progression. However, this overall gender parity is also deceptive as a breakdown between the different STEM subjects for all countries for which data is available shows that women tend to opt more for social sciences and humanities subjects rather than the natural sciences and engineering and technology.

Unfortunately, no data is currently available from UNESCO for the US; however, we can see these trends continuing in the US from data provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF) digest, which reports data on gender and racial equality in science and engineering every two years.[4] For a graphical representation of some of their latest findings, see Figure 4

Figure 4.

Scientists and engineers working in science and engineering occupations: 2013. Note: Hispanic may be any race. Other includes American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and multiple race. Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.[4]

The data in Figure 4 are quite stunning and show that despite recent advances, women of all racial and ethnic groups in the US are underrepresented in science and engineering occupations, making up only 30 % of the entire workforce, with women from racial minority groups the least represented of all. Further data provided by the NSF digest show the same trends as those observed from the UNESCO data with women opting disproportionally for subjects such as social science versus the natural sciences and engineering, and that women are more likely to occupy positions such as assistant and associate professor rather than obtaining full professorships, which are overwhelmingly held by men.

As an overall picture, it is clear from the data that women are still largely underrepresented in STEM subjects, especially in the natural sciences and engineering and technology, with a high number of women not choosing to pursue a research career at the point of obtaining a Bachelors degree and also after completing a PhD.

This process of the reduction in the number of women as one climbs up the ladder of career progression from education to research is widely referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline′, with even fewer women reaching high-level positions, such as heads of institutes or departments. Compounding the problem, when women do create successful careers in science they are, on average, paid less and receive less funding.[4, 5] While causes may vary, these trends are common not only to Europe and the US, but to many countries worldwide. Gender disparity in the sciences then does exist, which leads us to our next question, why should we do anything about it?

Do we really need to tackle gender disparity in the sciences?

A good answer to this question is that to maximize our potential in creativity and innovation we need the best minds on the job, be they male/female or black/white. Accordingly, it is important to ensure that there are no barriers to limit the possibilities for the best candidates to take on high-level research positions. Failure to do so could result in missing out on significant discoveries and achievements. Another more practical point may be that when women are not properly represented in certain research fields, gender variables can be easily disregarded. An example apt to the field of chemistry is the discovery that women respond to many medications differently to men and experience different side effects. This has remained undiscovered until relatively recently as many drug trials were previously based on average-sized men, assuming that women’s bodies would respond in the same manner.

In fact, physiologic differences between men and women that are determined by differences in body-fat distribution and hormones among other factors can affect the way drugs are metabolized and distributed in the body. Drugs that fall into this category include some prescription painkillers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.[6] This sort of factorization of gender factors is equally important in other research areas such as psychology and even transport planning.

Of course, as well as the benefits to science, society as a whole benefits when women are able to fully explore and achieve their potential and when their work is not undervalued. The fact that women’s equal representation and empowerment reduces poverty, particularly child poverty, and benefits economies is something that the UN has long recognized.

At the UN climate change conference in November last year in Paris, goal number 5[7] agreed at the conference was to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; indeed, the text of the goal clearly states that “Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large”.

The UN is not alone, the World Economic Forum[8] recognizes that “The key for the future of any country and any institution is the capability to develop, retain and attract the best talent.” And “Empowering and educating girls and women and leveraging their talent and leadership fully in the global economy, politics and society are thus fundamental elements of succeeding and prospering in an ever more competitive world.”[8b]

Why do women leave scientific research and what can we do to retain them?

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Things are improving, overall numbers of women are increasing in science subjects and we have begun to see the first appointments of female presidents of many chemical societies, including the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) (Lesley Yellowlees, 2012–2014), the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh) (Barbara Albert 2012–2013, current president: Thisbe Lindhorst), the Hungarian Chemical Society (HCS) (Livia Simon Sarkadi, 2015–present), and the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies (FACS) (Supawan Tantayanon, 2011–2013), following, if slowly, from the appointment of the first female president of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1978 (Anna Harrison).

We have also seen the appointments of Helma Wennemers, Christina Moberg, and Luisa De Cola, who between them have two Full Papers and one Communication in this issue, as the first female Fellows of ChemPubSoc Europe.[9]

Despite these great achievements, progress is still disappointingly slow and a ‘leaky pipeline’ has been established with many women that choose to study science leaving the subject after completing their PhD, and numbers continuing to be reduced right up to the highest-level positions.

This year’s theme for International Women’s day is Pledge for Parity in recognition of the need to accelerate women’s representation in all areas of life. With this in mind, it’s time to consider why women leave scientific research and what can be done to keep them.

Causes for the ‘leaks’ in the pipeline are many fold and are discussed in our Guest Editorials. Not surprisingly, three of these articles mention the introduction of children in the lives of women as being a key factor in deterring many from pursuing a research career, with the profession being seen as unfriendly to women and men who may need to take time out to care for small children.

Making career progression more flexible for women and men who need to take some time away from their careers in order to care for children or relatives seems to be an ideal place to start in helping to retain women in research. Giving equal benefits of maternity time for men helps women by allowing these responsibilities to be shared, should a couple so wish, so that one partner does not have to singly put their career on hold. Continuing this support when employees return to work and providing more long-term flexibility, such as holding meetings and seminars during school-time hours and providing on-site child care are avenues that should be explored.

One scheme that already provides this kind of support is the Daphne Jackson Trust (UK based), which was founded after the death of Daphne Jackson, the UK’s first female professor of physics. The trust provides flexible fellowships to STEM professionals (male and female) who wish to return to research after a break of two or more years.

The fellowships uniquely offer an individually tailored retraining and mentoring program to increase the confidence of their fellows when they apply for future research positions. Other programs, such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie program, also offer opportunities for those retuning to academia after a career break; however, as Hildegard Nimmesgern (Chairwoman of the Arbeitskreis Chancengleichheit in der Chemie AKCC, a working group of the German Chemical Society (GDCh) for more equal opportunities and gender equality in chemistry) puts it in her Guest Editorial on page 3529 “As our society relies on having children, it becomes clear that those supportive structures have to come from every side of society, politics, employers, and the families themselves”.

Thus, to plug this hole in the pipeline, we need women to feel comfortable that a research career does not mean sacrificing future caring responsibilities, and to do this, society as a whole needs to change its attitude to the value placed on these responsibilities and provide greater support in work to both women and men that have them.


Tackling gender-based discrimination is another more controversial part of keeping women in science. Science, always traditionally seen as a male interest, still suffers from this perception despite huge increases in women choosing to study it in further education. Science- and engineering-based toys are still widely being promoted in advertising using male characters and children, and can still be found in sections marked ‘gifts for boys’ or ‘boys toys’ in retailers. Telling girls from a young age that science and engineering are not for them instills a message that is carried throughout school and higher education that girls are not as good at science as boys, decreasing their confidence in their own abilities and potentially affecting their performance.

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has found that, in science, the highest-achieving boys outperform the highest-achieving girls in as many as 17 OECD countries.[10] Interestingly, the report found no evidence that this was linked to gender differences in aptitude but to their attitudes to learning and self-confidence, finding that when high-achieving girls and boys had similar levels of science self-belief, there was no performance gap. Indeed, the report states that “gender disparities in school performance stem from students’ attitudes towards learning and their behaviour in school, from how they choose to spend their leisure time, and from the confidence they have”.

The report goes on to suggest that parents and teachers have a large role to play in reducing gender-based gaps in performance by providing greater encouragement and support. Therefore, even if young girls enjoy science and are high-achieving students, lack of confidence and support from parents and teachers due to gender-stereotyping and misperception may lead them to underachieve in science and not consider the subject as a future career option. Organizations, such as the WISE campaign[11a] are currently trying to directly combat gender-stereotyping and campaign groups, such as ‘Let Toys Be Toys – For Girls and Boys’[11b] are trying to target retailers who sell and promote toys to a specific gender.

Unfortunately, these perceptions do not end after school, and women who go on to research careers still face both conscious and unconscious gender bias from both men and women.[12] Solving the problem through positive discrimination can also have its drawbacks as Irina Beletskaya (Professor of Chemistry at Moscow State University) indicates in her Guest Editorial on page 3531 “It always embarrasses me when women are singled out as a special category, and they are elected or appointed members of some committee just to fill a quota”. The answer then must lie in tackling the causes of gender bias directly instead of relying on positive discrimination to increase numbers.

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Once students reach university, changes to the way women are mentored could become a key method in helping them develop their careers. Marina Resmini (Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Queen Mary University of London) writes in her Guest Editorial on page 3533 that “It is important that higher education employers implement infrastructures that support doctoral students and provide training on PhD supervision for all supervisors where gender bias and tailored supervisory requirements are highlighted, recognizing that supervisors play an important role in addressing the ‘leaky pipeline′”.

One initiative that has had a positive impact on women’s representation in research is the UK-based Athena SWAN Charter (from the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) also responsible for the Race Equality Charter), which was established in 2005 to encourage and recognize commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEM employment in higher education and research.[13] The charter has now been expanded to the arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL), and in professional and support roles, and for transgender staff and students. Institutions can apply for an Athena Swan Award (gold, silver or bronze) based on whether they have signed up to the charter’s equality principles and can fulfill certain criteria designed to eliminate gender bias.

Tom Welton, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London, which was a founder member of the Athena SWAN Charter, describes the equality measures introduced to achieve gold for the Department of Chemistry in his Guest Editorial on page 3535 and writes that “What immediately became clear was that although generally women had been more adversely affected by poor practices than the men in the department, improving the environment in the department benefited both men and women. Hence, the changes that we implemented were not ‘for women′.

That is not to say that there is no role for women-only events, but that our changes were for the benefit of the whole department”. Initiatives such as this and others discussed in our Guest Editorials are good examples of how academic institutions can be encouraged to take measures that lead directly to greater representation of women and other minorities in STEM subjects both in industry and research and are a positive sign that the challenges of increasing diversity in science can be overcome.


Finally, social media deserves a mention as it has brought certain advantages for women wanting to discuss and learn more about gender issues in science and a whole new set of support groups have appeared that provide an open platform for information exchange and discussion. One such group is ′Women in Research′,[14] which was founded in 2013 by members of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry (Germany).

Of course, whilst social media brings the advantage of connecting individuals in discussions that might not otherwise have interacted and allowing women greater freedom to discuss their own experiences of gender bias and call it out when experienced, it also comes with certain disadvantages, such as providing the opportunity for troll attacks, gender-based troll attacks being one of the most prolific, and has led to accusations of individuals accused of gender bias being ‘tried by social media′. However, despite these disadvantages it has to be acknowledged that social media has provided a platform that enables women to speak out against gender bias and is making a huge impact on the discussion, even in science.

For more on this topic, please read our Guest Editorials and celebrate the great achievements and advances women have made in science and, particularly, “Women in Chemistry” with the contents of this issue. With the theme of International Women’s Day 2016, Pledge for Parity, in mind, Chemistry—A European Journal would like to make the following pledges to help increase gender parity in chemistry:

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  1. The journal increased the number of women on our Editorial board from three to five in 2014. Now we would like to pledge that we will continue to increase this number in an effort to move closer towards gender parity at each review of our Editorial board.

  2. The journal will actively look to increase the number of women involved in the peer review process.
  3. And, finally, the journal will continue to profile women in chemistry through its various media channels and highlight the research among its cover features and on ChemistryViews.

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