Hearing marginalised voices in science
Updated: Jun 9
There are too many examples of marginalised groups struggling to build careers in science. Jennifer Leigh introduces an initiative to help make these voices heard.
The law protects workers who whistleblow.
As an employee, if you disclose something that is in the public interest you should not be treated unfairly or lose your job.
However, if what you are disclosing could be a personal grievance – for example bullying, harassment or discrimination – then the law recommends that you go through your employee’s grievance procedures instead. But what happens if you are a student, or an employee on a fixed term contract, or your future career depends on the good recommendation of your current supervisor or line manager? What happens if you are subject to a systemic culture where people like you are discriminated against either overtly or in a series of compounding microaggressions?
In science, women and other marginalised groups are in the minority.
For example, a recent report from the Royal Society of Chemistry found there was only one Black professor of chemistry in the UK and he had never received UKRI funding. In this environment, disclosure of what seems an endemic culture of discrimination and bullying tends to happen only when individuals either reach a position of such seniority that they feel safe from any repercussions, or when they have left science altogether.
For example, if we consider gender, Rita Colwell, Ellen Daniells, and Sue Rosser have all shared stories from their time in science, including being discouraged from studying chemistry (Colwell), being denied tenure despite a stellar publication record and teaching practice (Daniells), and being asked to have an abortion when informing her supervisor she was pregnant (Rosser).
Chemistry as a discipline has particular issues around the retention and progression of women. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the point at which most women leave the chemical sciences is post-PhD. For those who choose to stay in academia, the career path generally involves one or more post-doctoral positions, then applying for fellowships or grants to start up their own research group and gain a permanent position.
Speaking out and getting on
Within such a competitive field, personal recommendations and references count for a lot. This means that anyone experiencing a personal grievance or witnessing events that might make them feel uncomfortable will have to think very carefully about what they choose to do. The ramifications for their own career may make it harder to choose to stand up for themselves or for others.
The International Women in Supramolecular Chemistry (WISC) network was launched by Jennifer Hiscock in late 2019 with the aim to create a sense of community and kinship, and support the retention and progression of women and other minority groups. From the outset WISC decided to do things differently. They took a novel area-specific approach focusing on just one small area of chemistry – supramolecular chemistry. They “called in” the community to support their own, and have always been led by what the community has asked for. They utilised a variety of qualitative research methods more commonly associated with the arts – such as autoethnography, arts-based methods, embodied inquiry, and creative reflection.
Over 2020-2021 I led a collaborative autoethnography with 14 participants from across the UK, USA, Europe, and Japan. The group included disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent people, a diversity of religious and ethnic backgrounds, and diversity of sexualities. Leigh led regular creative reflective groups for PhD students in two research groups in the US and UK, as well as qualitative surveys of the wider supramolecular chemistry community. WISC triangulated these results, and in addition to sharing the lived experiences of supramolecular chemists through COVID-19 they used them to synthesise fictional vignettes.
Fiction and truth
The purpose of creating fictional vignettes was to share the emotional, embodied experiences of the women who took part in the collaborative autoethnography, the creative reflection groups, and the qualitative surveys, without exposing any of them to the dangers of complaining or whistleblowing. WISC’s aim was not to “call out” anyone within the supramolecular chemistry community for bad behaviour, but to draw attention to the reality of life as a scientist when you are marginalised. Each of the vignettes (which are included in a book from Policy Press) focused on a different aspect of life as a scientist – from Adi, an international PhD student speaking about the pressures of leaving her home and support network to study overseas and its impact on her mental health, to Hermione, a mid-career researcher struggling to carry the load of teaching and the responsibility of caring for her research group through COVID-19, to Phyllis, a senior researcher looking back over her career.
WISC’s aim was to evoke a response, to change the culture of silence around sexism and misogyny in science, and to gain support from those within the community with the power to effect change. Jonathan Steed said the book was:
"A stark spotlight on the experience of women in science. For some an insightful, resonating read; for others a challenging, surprising wake-up call for real change."
David Leigh, Fellow of the Royal Society and Nobel Prize nominee, said:
"In reading this the most uncomfortable part of all was the persistent wondering if and how my own behaviour contributes to the inequality and experiences I was reading about. What do I do, or not do, that makes academia less fair on my women colleagues?"
Learning from lived experience
WISC hopes that researchers, research leaders, science administrators, funders, university and industry leaders will listen to and learn from their lived experience, and work together to craft inclusive change. They are aiming for a future with a scientific community where everyone is given the opportunity to learn and to progress, regardless of their gender, religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality, disability or any other protected characteristic. A future which values the contributions and wellbeing of its workers equally, and where people work in collaboration rather than competition to produce knowledge that could make the world a better place.
To get to that place will take a lot of work and effort. The first stage of effecting change is to get people to reflect and pay attention to what is happening now; to realise that there is a problem and that it is impacting on people they value. From that starting point, they are freer to choose to do things differently.