This chapter looks at the experiences of academic work from an intersectional feminist perspective, including the context of traditional gender boundaries. These are often compounded for women in science as they take on or are asked to provide additional equality, diversity, and inclusion support either formally or informally through student support and the lack of recognition for this work. We consider marginalisation in academia, and the casual sexism and harassment that minorities may face. The global COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pressure for many academics. In looking at data that includes undergraduate numbers, postgraduate numbers, and progression through the postdoctoral system and on to senior roles internationally for those who are marginalised, we consider aspects that contribute to progression, such as bias in publishing, citations, funders, and processes such as networking, winning funding, and securing tenure (in the US). We also consider how these might be affected by intersecting barriers such as gender, disability, and race.
Lack of diversity in science and chemistry
Meritocratic perspectives suggest that sociocultural norms in science education are rooted in the ‘impersonal
characteristics of science’12(p269) and produce objective sociocultural standards for communication of knowledge. Such perspectives align with positivist productions of scientific knowledge within value-neutral environments, positioning concepts of racialized or gendered microaggressions as subjective forms of preferential treatment. This value-neutral ideology protects inherited advantages, creates insider/outsider dynamics, and necessitates forms of cultural capital. Among students from traditionally marginalized populations, failure is viewed as an individual consequence rather than a reflection of systemic oppression.13(pp19–20)
Science is not as objective or meritocratic as it claims to be. Scientists
have a more difficult time than other kinds of workers do in perceiving themselves as discriminatory … science has a vested interest in the idea of the intellectual meritocracy. It is important to scientists to believe that they act rationally, that they do not distort or ignore evidence, that neither their work nor their profession is seriously influenced by politics, ambition, or prejudice.14(p59)
There are still far fewer Black academics in UK academia than would be expected.15 While 3% of the population identify as Black,16 as of January 2020 there were only 155 Black professors out of 23,000.17 Only 10 Black scientists were funded by UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) in 2020 and the only Black chemistry professor was not among them.18 White STEM academics are three times more likely to become full professors than their Black counterparts.19 In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests attention was drawn to inequality and lack of diversity across science.20,21 It is known that Black academics and other minority groups are judged less fairly in student evaluations, which are often used as the basis for promotion and progression criteria.22
In this book, we have taken a feminist perspective; however, without intersectionality there is no feminism. Intersectionality is a term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw31 to describe the multiple barriers of sexism and racism faced by Black women. Intersectionality has since been co-opted to include other instances of compounding factors faced by individuals who experience intersecting marginalisation due to being Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour, having a chronic illness or disability, class, religion, sexuality, ethnic origin, and the like. Within academia, the region of the world in which a researcher is based might also marginalise them and their research. Women of colour (WOC) face a ‘double bind’ of racism and sexism ‘the environments in which WOC STEM faculty must work are often not ideal … these sub-optimal environments often lead to faculty discrimination, intentional attrition (e.g. choosing to leave for a variety of personal or professional reasons), and unintentional attrition (e.g. not earning tenure)’.32(p56) Women of colour are often victims of tokenisation (where they are differentiated from their counterparts in unfair ways, on display, expected to conform, be socially invisible, stereotyped, and lack sponsorship), pioneerism (that is, being the first minority in the department having to serve as the first or only
Disability in academia and science
Being disabled, neurodivergent, or having a chronic illness in academia is not the norm.33 Up to 30% of the general population is thought to have a condition that would be recognised under the 2010 Equality Act,34 compared to 16% of the working age population, and just 4% of academics.35 While disclosure rates are slowly increasing across the sector, this varies according to discipline,36 with the physical sciences and subjects with the greatest gender imbalance having the lowest disclosure rates.37 Ableism in academia is endemic.38,39 Decisions to disclose a condition or disability are personal,40 and have to take into account a weighing up of perceived and actual risks versus benefits. Such decisions may factor in the particular condition that an individual has, and how it is perceived in society,41 as well as more general stereotypes of disabled people as scroungers, workshy, or lazy.42 For example, cancer or multiple sclerosis may be perceived as a more worthy condition than a contested illness such as fibromyalgia, or mental health issues. Similarly, there may be internalised ableism or preconceptions about neurodivergence such as autism or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
Disabled people face many barriers and microaggressions,44 and these continue throughout education45 and in society.46 Within academia, these discriminations can be from external funding bodies47 as well as internally within institutions, and the culmination of such discrimination and barriers is the absence of academics with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or neurodivergences.37 In part, this can be explained by a predominance of the medical model of disability within science, which describes a disability as a deficit of the individual.48 In contrast, the social model of disability49 would instead label the environment or society as disabling. For example, an individual in a wheelchair is only disabled when the ramps and lifts are not in place to let them get where they need and want to go. The medical model allows able-bodied and neurotypical people to see those with disabilities as ‘lesser’, and less human. It is common for those who are ‘out’ about their disability, neurodivergence, or chronic illness, or who are a minority due to their religion, sexuality, gender, or other protected characteristic, to become involved in work that supports equality, diversity, and inclusion. However, this work is not always recognised in formal progression processes by the institutions,6 and can in fact rebound negatively on the individuals involved.50
Gender imbalance in science and chemistry
Women have historically been thought of as lesser beings,51 from Aristotle, who wrote on women’s general intellectual inferiority,52 to Galen, who described female embryos as polluted.53 In the Victorian period, prevailing biological and medical ideas reinforced the inferior status of women, making
There are many even more disturbing stories from women who work or worked in science. For example, in her second year of postdoctoral research, Sue Rosser became pregnant with her second child. On telling her principal investigator, he “told me to get an abortion because the pregnancy came at the wrong time in the research … we needed to gather data intensively over the next several months in preparation for renewal of the grant’.56(p41) These comments made Rosser feel that becoming pregnant had jeopardised her career, resonating with the discussion on motherhood and science in Chapter Three, and Xie and Shauman’s57 findings that having a family slows down the advancement of women in science. Nancy Hopkins related a story to Rita Colwell of an incident as an undergraduate student when Francis Crick visited his friend James Watson, Hopkins’ mentor. Crick ‘zoomed across the room, stood behind me, put his hands on my breasts and
The gender gap is wider within STEM disciplines than in many others. This is not news. However, science is not a monolith, and there are variations across disciplines and countries. For example, from 2014 to 2019 in the UK, there were more women than men enrolled to study medicine and dentistry, subjects allied to medicine (including nursing), biological sciences, veterinary science, agriculture and related subjects, and architecture, building, and planning.58 However, the reverse was true in physical sciences, mathematical sciences, computer sciences, engineering, and technology.58 The figures are similar for the US, with 50.5% of all science degrees awarded to women in 2012.59 This makes statements such as ‘in 2019 in the UK 35% of STEM students in higher education were women’”60 difficult to substantiate, as it is not clear which subjects are included, and the granularity that shows that women are choosing to enrol in some subjects and not others is absent. Even data for the ‘physical sciences’, which combines chemistry and physics, can be misleading, as in the UK chemistry attracts a higher proportion of women undergraduates than physics.61 However, as discussed in Chapter Three, even with high numbers of enrolments at an undergraduate level, it is another thing for women to continue on to find careers and success within science wherever they are in the world.62 Women academics are subject to the same pressures to achieve citations as men. However, across academia women are cited less than men,63 and this effect is particularly evident in the physical sciences, where it was one of the only subject groupings that showed evidence of systematic bias against women in a large study conducted by Elsevier.64 When it comes to peer review, there is evidence to show that harsh reviews, which are antithetical to the collegiate
In chemistry in the UK, historically women owe thanks to individuals such as Ida Smedley (1877–1944) and Martha Whiteley (1866–1956), who ‘both pursued outstanding but very different scientific careers whilst endeavouring to improve conditions for women, and after a protracted battle, they were among the first group of women to be allowed membership of the London Chemical Society’.54(p169) These women also initiated a dining society that met three times a year, forming for themselves the kind of community and network advocated by many senior women in the sciences as a way to combat the isolation faced by minorities.50,55,56 In Chapter Five we will return to the importance of community, and the role that WISC plays to support the retention and progression of women. For now, we note how the pressure of historical and present-day barriers for women and marginalised groups can lead to the feeling that they are being crushed by the weight of what has gone before (see Figure 4.1). In the chemical sciences, the lack of retention and progression for women and all those with protected equality and diversity (EDI) characteristics is pronounced.27 This is highlighted by data – for example in the UK in physics the percentage of women choosing to study at A-level at school or college is around 25%, with the proportion of women reaching full professor approximately 9%.67 However, the percentage of women choosing to study chemistry at undergraduate level is over 45%, while the proportion of women reaching full professor is still only 9%. As we have seen already, more women are employed on short-term precarious contracts.67 Women author fewer papers and are cited less.68 Proportionately fewer women sit on editorial boards, are nominated for awards, and far fewer file patent applications.65 As discussed, gender is of course not the only
Institutional drivers to promote equality and inclusivity
the REC is not perceived as a significant vehicle for progressing race equality work in award-holding institutions. Rather, it is mostly applied as an enhancement tool to help shape and sustain existing race equality initiatives that produce incremental change. This, we argue, suggests the REC’s intention to inspire race equality approaches that favour institutional strategic planning at the highest level, is yet to be realised.71(p18)
Community and mentoring
we do not need to cater to women in science. We need only give women an equal chance to achieve. The best of 100 percent of the population will always be better than the best of 50 percent of the population. Once all the talent in our country can compete on a level playing field, decisions about who to hire and who to support can be made on the basis of brains and ability, not gender, ethnicity, or national origin.50(p194)
Colwell said that key ways women and girls could support themselves to have a successful career in science were to form or join study groups that include other women, to go online to meet kindred souls and meet with them bi-weekly so as not to be alone, and to find a mentor. Rosser states that
These safe, or ‘safer’, spaces are where women and those who are marginalised can ‘let off steam’, reflect on, and process their experiences. This might include a structured method by which they allocate time to each individual and the ‘work’ they wish to do,55 action learning sets,79 peer mentoring, or
In the next chapter we set out the story of how WISC began, and the model that we have for building community in supramolecular chemistry. We share how we have set up a programme for mentoring, support clusters, and, in Chapter Six, how the regular collaborative autoethnographic meetings have allowed us to communicate transparently, express what we have experienced, find practical and emotional support, and collaborate professionally.
Paula, 33, Early career
Until two months ago I was the only woman in my department. There doesn’t ever seem to have been more than one woman here at a time, I’m not entirely sure why. I’d like to think that it isn’t because they just want to have a ‘token’ but it does sometimes feel like that. You know, one woman, one person of colour. Actually, I wish there was one person of colour. It’s not great optics that our students are diverse but the faculty looks all white. I get asked to sit on a lot of committees. Hiring committees, ones where the department needs to be represented. I never like to say no because I know that the department will have to decide in the next couple of years whether they are going to make me permanent, and promote me. I need to have good relationships with them so that they ask me to collaborate on projects with them. If I say no then they might say that I haven’t given enough service to the department, or I haven’t been collegial enough, and I might miss out on those opportunities. Now that I think about it there haven’t been that many opportunities coming my way from the department – most of the collaborative work I do has been as a result of my own networks outside the university.
I do worry though that it all takes me away from my research. I don’t see work of this kind getting recognition when it comes to grant applications or promotion. It doesn’t seem to matter as much as papers and funding. Some of my friends told me that I should just say no more often, and put myself first. Instead, I have been getting up at 5am just so that I have a couple of hours to write. I haven’t really published as much as I would like to yet, I’m only beginning in my career and developing my group. I don’t want to become known as ‘that woman’ if I keep banging on about it being unfair. I saw that happen to a friend when I was a PhD student. He was in a wheelchair and had to fight for everything. He wasn’t even lab-based so you’d think it would be easy enough to get a computer with the right keyboard, and for him to be able to get into the postgraduate office, but still. He became a bit of an advocate for disability rights, and I think that is one reason why he couldn’t get a post-doc position. He left science in the end; I don’t know what he’s up to now.
I find that a lot of our women students want to work with me, or talk to me. They haven’t met many other women in the field, and they want my input or advice. They see me as a role model, which is lovely, but it also takes away time from my own research …