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“There comes a time when you have to run out of patience.”

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In this post, I’m sharing an excellent short film called “A Chemical Imbalance,” which includes a number of brief interviews with chemists (most of them women, most at the University of Edinburgh) about the current situation for women in chemistry (and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, more generally) in the UK. Here’s the film:

A Chemical Imbalance
(I’m including my transcription of the film below.)

Some of the things I really appreciate about this film:

  • We get personal impressions, from women of different generations, about what it’s been like for them to be in chemistry in the UK.
  • We get numbers to quantify the gender disparity in academic chemistry in the UK, as well as to identify where in the career pipeline the disparity becomes worse. We also get numbers about how women chemists are paid relative to their male counterparts, and about relative rates of tenure that can’t be blamed on choices about childbearing and/or childrearing. There’s not just the perception of gender disparities in academic chemistry — the numbers demonstrate that the disparities are real.
  • Lurking beneath the surface is a conversation the interviewees might have had (but didn’t in the final cut) about what they count as compromises with respect to parenting and with respect to careers. My sense is that they would not all agree, and that they might not be as accepting of their colleagues’ alternative ways of striking a balance as we might hope.
  • Interviewees in the film also discuss research on unconscious gender bias, which provides a possible causal mechanism for the disparities other than people consciously discriminating against women. If people aren’t consciously discriminating, our intuition is that people aren’t culpable (because they can’t help what their unconscious is up to). However, whether due to conscious choices or unconscious bias, the effects are demonstrably real, which raises the question: what do we do about it?
  • The interviewees seem pretty hesitant about “positive discrimination” in favor of women as a good way to address the gender disparity — one said she wouldn’t want to think she got her career achievements because she’s a woman, rather than because she’s very good at what she does. And yet, they seem to realize that we may have to do something beyond hoping that people’s individual evaluations become less biased. The bias is there (to the extent that, unconsciously, males are being judged as better because they’re men). It’s a systemic problem. How can we put the burden on individuals to somehow magically overcome systemic problems?
  • We see a range of opinions from very smart women who have been describing inequalities and voicing the importance of making things in STEM more equitable about whether they’d describe themselves as feminists. (One of them says, near the end, that if people don’t like the word, we need to find another one so we don’t get sidetracked from actually pursuing equality.)
  • We see a sense of urgency. Despite how much has gotten better, there are plenty of elements that still need to improve. The interviewees give the impression that we ought to be able to find effective ways to address the systemic problems, if only we can find the will to do so within the scientific community.

How important is it to find more effective ways to address gender disparities in STEM? The statistic in the film that hit me hardest is that, at our present rate of progress, it will take another 70 years to achieve gender parity. I don’t have that kind of time, and I don’t think my daughters ought to wait that long, either. To quote Prof. Lesley Yellowlees,

I’ve often heard myself say we have to be patient, but there comes a time when you have to run out of patience, because if we don’t run out of patience and we don’t start demanding more from the system, demanding that culture change to happen faster than it’s happening at present, then I think we not only do ourselves a disservice, but we do the generations both past and the ones to come a huge disservice as well.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 13 minutes packed so effectively with so much to think about.

* * * * *
Transcript of “A Chemical Imbalance”:

Dr. Perdita Barran, Reader in Biophysical Chemistry, University of Edinburgh: I’m not sure why it is Edinburgh has such a high number of female faculty, and indeed, female postdoctoral researchers and female research fellows. One of the greatest things about this department is, because they’re are such a high proportion of female faculty — it ranges between 20 and even up to 30 percent at a few times — it becomes less important and we are less prone to the gender bias, because you don’t need to do it. You just think of scientists as scientists, you don’t think of them in terms of their gender.

Prof. Eleanor Campbell FRSC FRS, Professor of Physical Chemistry, Head of School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh: It’s very difficult to put your finger on it, but I do feel a different atmosphere in a place where you have a significant percentage of women. That’s not to say that women can’t be confrontational and egoistical, of course they can. But on the whole, there is a difference in atmosphere.

Text on screen: 1892 Women are finally allowed to attend The University of Edinburgh as undergraduates.

Text on screen: By 1914, over 1000 women hold degrees.

Prof. Steve Chapman FRSE FRSC, Principal & Vice Chancellor, Heriot-Watt University: There’s still not enough women representation in STEM at all levels, but it gets worse the higher you go up, and when you go to management levels, I think, there is a serious disparity.

Prof. Eleanor Campbell: Yeah, the leaky pipeline is a sort of worrying tendency to lose women at various stages on the career path. [Graph on the screen about "Women in STEM, UK average".] Here we [discussing the chemistry line on the graph] have roughly 50-50 in terms of male/female numbers at the undergraduate level. It [the proportion of women] drops a little bit at postgraduate level, and then it dives going to postdocs and onward, and that is extremely worrying. We’re losing a lot of very, very talented people.

Text on screen: Women in STEM, UK average
Undergraduate 33%
Professor 9%
(2011 UKRC & HESA)

Dr. Elaine Murray MSP, Shadow Minister for Housing & Transport, Scottish Parliament: I feel that I did — 25 years ago I made the choice between remaining in science and my family. You know, 52% of women who’ve been trained in STEM come out of it. I’m one of them.

Prof. Anita Jones, Professor of Molecular Photophysics, University of Edinburgh: On the whole, women still do take more responsibility for the looking after children and so on. But again, I think there are things that can be put in place, improved child care facilities and so on, that can help with that, and can help to achieve an acceptable compromise between the two.

Dr. Marjorie Harding, Honorary Fellow, University of Edinburgh: The division of responsibilities between husband and wife has changed a lot over the years. When I first had children, it was quite clear that it was my responsibility to cope with the home, everything that was happening there, and the children’s things, and not to expect him to have time available for that sort of thing.

Dr. Carole Morrison, Senior Lecturer in Structural Chemistry, University of Edinburgh: When the children were small, because I was working part time, I felt that I was incredibly fortunate. I was able to witness all of their little milestones. But it’s meant that my career has progressed much slower than it would have done otherwise. But, you know, life is all about compromises. I wasn’t prepared to compromise on raising my children.

Dr. Alison Hulme, Senior Lecturer in Organic Chemistry, University of Edinburgh: I don’t go out of my way to let people know that I only work at 80%, for the very fact that I don’t want them to view me as any less serious about my intentions in research.

Dr. Perdita Barran: I really understood feminism when I had children and also wanted to work. Then it really hits you how hard it is actually to be a female in science.

Text on screen: 1928 Dr. Christina Miller produces the first ever sample of pure phosphorus trioxide.
In the same year British women achieve suffrage.

Text on screen: 1949 Dr. Miller becomes the first female chemist elected to The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Prof. Steve Chapman: Do I consider myself to be a feminist?

Prof. Anita Jones: Well, that’s an interesting question.

Dr. Perdita Barran: Uh, yeah!

Dr. Marjorie Harding: No.

Dr. Carole Morrison: No, definitely not.

Prof. Eleanor Campbell: No, I’ve never thought of myself as a feminist.

Dr. Alison Hulme: I think that people don’t want to be labeled with the tag of being a feminist because it has certain connotations associated with it that are not necessarily very positive.

Dr. Elaine Murray: I’m of an age when women were considered to be feminists, you know, most of us in the 1970s. There are battles still to be fought, but I think we had a greater consciousness of the need to define ourselves as feminists, and I would still do so. But, there’s been progress, but I think the young women still need to be aware that there’s a lot to be done. All the battles weren’t won.

Text on screen: 1970 The UK Parliament passes The Equal Pay Act.
Over 40 years later, women still earn on average 14.9% less that their male counterparts, and they get promoted less.

Prof. Polly Arnold FRSE FRSC, Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh: The Yale study on subconscious bias was a real shocker. I realized that it was an American study, so the subjects were all American, but I don’t feel that it’s necessarily any different in the UK.

Prof. Steve Chapman: It was a very simple study, but a very telling study. They sent out CVs to people in North American institutions and the only difference in the CV was the name at the top — a male name or a female name. The contents of the CVs were identical. And when the people were asked to comment on the CVs, there was something like a 40% preference for the CV if it had a male name associated with it. Now those people I don’t think were actively trying to discriminate against women, but they were, and they were doing it subconsciously. It scared me, because of course I would go around saying, ‘I’m not prejudiced at all,’ but I read that and I thought, if I saw those CVs, would I react differently?

Dr. Janet Lovett, Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh: You hear the kind of results from the Yale study and unfortunately you’re not that surprised by them. And I think … I think it’s hard to explain why you’re not that surprised by them. There is an endemic sexism to most high-powered careers, I would say.

Prof. Polly Arnold: When I was a junior academic in a previous job, I was given the opportunity to go on a course to help women get promoted. The senior management at the university had looked at the data, and they’d realized that the female academics were winning lots of international prizes, being very successful internationally, but they weren’t getting promoted internally, so what we needed was a course to help us do this. And to this day, I still don’t understand how they didn’t realize that it was them that needed the course.

Dr. Elaine Murray: I think a lot of it isn’t really about legislation or regulation, it’s actually cultural change, which is more difficult to affect. And, you know, the recognition that this is part of an equality agenda, really, that we need to have that conversation which is not just about individuals, its about the experience of women in general.

Text on screen: Women without children are still 23% less likely to achieve tenure than men with children.

Prof. Anita Jones: I’m not really in favor of positive discrimination. I don’t think, as a women, I would have wanted to feel that I got a job, or a fellowship, or a grant, or whatever, because I was a woman rather than because I was very good at what I do.

Prof. Steve Chapman: I think we have to be careful. I was looking at the ratio of women in some of the things that we’re doing in my own institution, and accidentally you can heavily dominate things with males without actually thinking about it. Does that mean we have to have quotas for women? No. But does it mean we have to be pro-active in making sure we’re bringing it to the attention of women that they should be involved, and that they add value? Yes.

Dr. Elaine Murray: I was always an advocator of positive discrimination in politics, in order to address the issue of the underrepresentation of women. Now, a lot of younger women now don’t see that as important, and yet if you present them some of the issues that women face to get on, they do realize things aren’t quite as easy.

Text on screen: 2012 The School of Chemistry receives the Athena Swan Gold Award, recognising a significant progression and achievement in promoting gender equality.

Prof. Steve Chapman: We shouldn’t underestimate the signal that Athena Gold sends out. It sends out the message that this school is committed to the Athena Agenda, which isn’t actually just about women. It’s about creating an environment in which all people can thrive.

Prof. Eleanor Campbell: I think it is extremely important that the men in the department have a similar view when it comes to supporting young academics, graduate students, postdocs, regardless of their gender. I think that’s extremely important. And, I mean, certainly here, our champion for our Athena Swan activities is a male, and I deliberately wanted to have a younger male doing that job, to make it clear that it wasn’t just about women, that it was about really improving conditions for everybody.

Dr. Elaine Murray: I know, for example, in the Scottish government, equalities is somehow lumped in with health, but it’s not. You know, health is such a big portfolio that equalities is going to get pretty much lost in the end, and I think probably there’s a need for equalities issues to take a higher profile at a governmental level. And I think also it’s still about challenging the media, about the sort of stereotypes which surround women more generally, and still in science.

Text on screen: 2012 Prof. Lesley Yellowlees becomes the first female President of The Royal Society of Chemistry.

Prof. Lesley Yellowlees MBE FRSE FRSC, Professor of Inorganic Electrochemistry, Vice Principal & Head of the College of Science & Engineering, University of Edinburgh, President of The Royal Society of Chemistry: I’ve often heard myself say we have to be patient, but there comes a time when you have to run out of patience, because if we don’t run out of patience and we don’t start demanding more from the system, demanding that culture change to happen faster than it’s happening at present, then I think we not only do ourselves a disservice, but we do the generations both past and the ones to come a huge disservice as well.

Text on screen: At our current rate of progress it will take 70 years before we achieve parity between the sexes.

Prof. Polly Arnold: If we’re unwilling to define ourselves as feminists, we need to replace the word with something more palatable. The concept of equality is no less relevant today.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. gs_chandy 10:07 pm 08/7/2013

    What is the percentage of women in the UK? In Scotland?

    And what’s the percentage of women in STEM professions, at various levels?

    Why not study ‘systems’ a bit, in order to learn how to start working, right today, to get matters redressed a bit in 5 or 10 years’ time?

    I observe that the conventional scientific knowledge of systems is nothing that can be worked with in a normative matter, as for instance, “To redress the gender imbalance in STEM-areas”.

    The late John N. Warfield had developed a view of systems science that enables individuals and groups to ‘see’ systems clearly, so that it becomes possible to actually DO things with those systems. More information about Warfield’s seminal contributions to systems science is available at and from the “John N. Warfield Collection” held at the library of George Mason University, where Warfield was Professor Emeritus (see;query= ;) .

    Some developments from Warfield’s work has led to an aid to problem solving and decision making that I call the ‘One Page Management System’ (OPMS), which enables any individual or group (at any level – regardless of background in systems science or math) to identify a Mission of current interest and to develop, from available ideas, an effective Action Plan to accomplish it. The OPMS Action Plan is bound to be effective as it uses our innate human capabilities to strengthen or modify weak/wrong ideas – a capability that is normally put to sleep in systems we normally live in and work in.


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  2. 2. gs_chandy 10:30 pm 08/7/2013

    Further my post just now, why stick at redressing the gender imbalance just “a bit” as written there?

    Why not ensure that – in 5 years or so – there would be no noticeable gender imbalance at all in STEM professions?

    Once that ‘Mission’ is effectively accomplished, it will be time to start working on ‘society as a whole’, which suffers from quite significant (and probably very damaging) gender imbalances.


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  3. 3. Outfielddan 12:02 am 08/8/2013

    Why is it that scientists are predominately male? That is a good question. Are there differences between the genders that cause this? Is Darwin’s natural selection operating, or is there some other force – maybe a conspiracy? This article implies that male predominance is not fair. Is that true? Is it the fault of being a male?

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  4. 4. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 12:15 am 08/8/2013

    @ Outfielddan,

    Did you invest the 13 minutes required to watch the film? It discusses actual empirical research that indicates implicit bias as a likely explanation, not to mention societal expectations that put responsibility for home and family disproportionately on women.

    In light of this, is there any positive reason to posit that men have an inborn predisposition towards science that women lack?

    Link to this
  5. 5. rkipling 1:11 pm 08/8/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    In the Yale study that reported a 40% preference for CVs with male names, do you know the gender make up of those in the North American Institutions who reviewed the CVs?

    Link to this
  6. 6. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 1:18 pm 08/8/2013

    @ rkipling,

    Off the top of my head, I do not.

    However, I do know that research has demonstrated that women’s evaluations of CVs, job application materials, etc., reflect the same implicit gender bias that men’s evaluations do.

    These assumptions are in our heads, operating without our awareness. Finding a mechanism to counteract them would be good.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rkipling 2:25 pm 08/8/2013


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