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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Leigh

Breaking down the intersectional barriers faced by women in science

Updated: May 16, 2022

On the eve of International Women’s Day, Jennifer Leigh profiles the Women in Supramolecular Chemistry network, whose aim is to promote the retention and progression in supramolecular chemistry not only of women but also other minority groups.

“There is an issue with a lack of diversity and gender balance in science that is worsened by the devaluing of science disciplines which are reaching gender parity. Chemistry has a particular issue around the retention and progression of women.

While women make up nearly 50 per cent of the undergraduates studying Chemistry in the UK, the percentage of full professors who are women is less than 9 per cent. To give context, in Physics, where fewer than a quarter of all A-level students are women, the percentage of full professors is still just under 9 per cent.

Discrimination is, to use Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term, intersectional. This means that the barriers that people face, due to their gender, race, disability or any other protected characteristic, compound. In order to look at the challenges faced by women in the field of Chemistry, we also need to consider the challenges they may face due to their religion, sexuality, disability or any other protected characteristic. We must also acknowledge that it is not only women who face barriers, and that other marginalised genders such as trans men and non-binary people will face barriers too. Not all barriers are always taken into consideration; recent diversity data from the ACS does not even mention disability or chronic illness. However, disability, chronic illness and neurodivergence are barriers to progression, and in the UK less than 1 per cent of UKRI applications were made by individuals disclosing a disability (statistics were not shared for successful awards).

The international Women in Supramolecular Chemistry (WISC) network was launched by Dr Jennifer Hiscock, Dr Anna McConnell, Dr Cally Haynes and Dr Claudia Caltagirone in November 2019 with the aim of promoting the retention and progression of women in Supramolecular Chemistry. However, this network has now expanded to support other related minority groups. WISC also gave itself a remit to form a sense of community and kinship, taking an area-specific approach to improving Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), and adopted qualitative research expertise into the network, ‘calling in’ the community to support its own.

WISC’s first action was to conduct a survey of the community, and all the activities undertaken have been led by what the community has asked for. To date, this has included a website, a series of webinars on topics such as work–life balance, careers outside academia, and communicating science effectively together with vMASC (the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Macrocyclic and Supramolecular Chemistry Special Interest Group), a mentoring programme, and specific community clusters to support groups who are further marginalised. The community clusters include one focused on parents (including step-parents, foster parents, adoptive parents and prospective parents), one for disabled/chronically ill/neurodivergent people, and a new cluster for those who are the first in their family or friendship group to study at higher education level. All the clusters are open to all genders.

WISC takes an inclusive feminist approach to research – deliberately using embodied and creative research methods to allow people to share stories. Our programme of research incorporates collaborative autoethnography and reflexivity as well as more traditional qualitative online surveys. Our research spanned the initial global lockdowns in 2020–21, and so we were able to record lived experiences of lab researchers through COVID-19. However, we now aim to go beyond this, and to become agents of change within Chemistry and other scientific disciplines with a model of how to do things differently.

In our book we wanted to discuss the intersectional barriers that face women in academia generally and science specifically. We shared our own experiences, and created a series of fictional vignettes that were synthesised from two years of research data with women Principal Investigators (PIs), PhD students, postdocs and the wider community. These vignettes were designed to convey stories that came from the research, without exposing anyone to the dangers associated with whistleblowing or complaining.

WISC is very determined to hold true to an intersectional feminist focus. At the moment we are engaged in a number of projects funded by the Royal Society (APX\R1\201170), UKRI (MR/T020415/1), RSC D&I funds and the Universities of Kiel and Kent. These include working with Empowering Female Minds in STEM to increase the visibility of Black women in Chemistry and science communication (SciComm), with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) STEMM Action Group to create the virtual accessible Chemistry lab of the future, and upcoming research on the barriers faced by first-generation scientists. We are expanding the model of support we have created for students in research groups led by women by adapting it to address issues of attrition among PhD students in a biosciences doctoral training partnership, and have been asked to bring our model of collaborative autoethnography project to women in Chemistry and Biosciences in South Africa, to support them as they negotiate the specific barriers they face there.

Everyone in WISC took on the work for the network in addition to and alongside their day job. We are all committed to being part of something that addresses inequality and makes change for ourselves and the people who come after us.”

Jennifer Leigh is Senior Lecturer in Higher Education and Academic Practice at the University of Kent, UK.

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