In this final chapter, we look to the future, and discuss the impacts of participating in this work for those involved. To date, everyone who has taken an active role in WISC has seen an increase in research outputs, grant successes, or career progression that is enabling them to achieve greater things within the field of supramolecular chemistry and beyond.
WISC’s work is on-going. The collaborative autoethnography began life as part of two funded research projects – one that is exploring how women PIs can become better leaders, and another that is explicitly exploring how creative and reflective approaches can be used within groups to improve communication and result in an increase in both the amount and quality of the science produced. The second project is collecting data on groups’ scientific outputs so that if there is a relationship between the approaches and scientific research, we will be able to demonstrate this quantitatively, as well as by using qualitative evidence of lived experiences. To date, we are creating a body of work that is already demonstrating the impact of community building and innovative interdisciplinary research between science and social science, and how these can change practice and policy within an academic disciplinary community. WISC’s work is gathering pace. Since the funding
Findings from WISC’s second survey, which set out to explore the lived experiences of supramolecular chemists through COVID-19, have been triangulated with data from working with research groups in reflective meetings and data obtained through the collaborative autoethnography sessions. These results have been published in CHEM.1,* The survey, which had 105 respondents from 6 continents, found that while people across all career stages were impacted by COVID-19, those at the later stages with responsibility for groups, particularly those who had caring responsibilities, were most likely to be affected negatively. Conversely, the groups that reported COVID-19 being a positive and/or productive time were most likely to be PhD students or post-docs without caring responsibilities. The paper shared the emotional toll on those who were responsible for leading and managing groups through periods of lockdown and then returning to labs.
It has been immensely emotionally draining in returning. It requires additional effort each day to focus on work while the numbers are/were rising so steadily. (PhD student, woman)
Finding return to labs hard, difficult to use the shared equipment safely without feeling stressed. I feel pressure to make up for lost time so the return to labs has been very busy. (PhD student, woman)
Our supervisor chose who got to go back and only informed those individuals at the last minute, leaving everyone else wondering if they are to stay at home or just haven’t received his email yet. Post-docs got to go back first and didn’t take the time to talk to the rest of the group. (PhD student, woman)
Our survey found that researchers and group leaders with split groups had a much harder time. Groups became more dissociated. One collaborative autoethnography member said “my group are divided”, and many of the group sessions were spent talking about ways in which to increase group unity and communication when they were not able to be together in the same space.
We were increasing told to look after the students’ mental health and make sure they were ok above everything. No one asked how the staff were coping. … Returning
to labs has made dealing with PhD students a bit better, less reliant on me to tell them what to do. But they continually pester me asking when the rota will change (we have split the group in half and are doing week in and then week out). This isn’t helped when other labs are in 100% of the time due to them having larger labs or smaller groups. Head of school says there is no more space, seems unlikely, just poorly organised space. … We have been told to prioritise teaching from up high, but also from college we are asking where all the grants are, where are the papers since we’ve had all this extra time. (Independent researcher, woman)
I feel that my research team and I responded to the challenges that COVID posed to us with resilience and agility, the main impact to myself was that an amount of my personal and emotional resource was needed to support others and ensure the productivity of my team was maintained. This has left me drained and exhausted. (Independent researcher, woman)
I worked from home. Its arguably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have two kids (age 8 and 12) and they are somewhat autonomous, but it was still difficult. I worried about everything … especially the well-being of my group, and of course our productivity which effectively fell to zero. (Independent researcher, man)
I have a leadership role in the Dept [department] and trying to sort out how to handle COVID in the best way for the Dept, students, and university has required a huge amount of time, effort, and anxiety, unrelentingly, for more than 12 months. The most negative effects for my research, besides the huge amount of extra work for me that COVID has necessitated to sort out Dept & university matters, is not seeing individual members
of my group in person, other than by Zoom, for more than a year. Without face-to-face interaction one cannot really understand how everything is going, personally and professionally, for everyone and on particular projects. (Independent researcher, man)
These quotes demonstrate that our collaborative autoethnography group was not having isolated experiences within the field of supramolecular chemistry, and it is our belief that these same sentiments are likely to resonate through many other lab-based disciplines.
The challenges that students, post-docs, and independent researchers faced in supramolecular chemistry are likely to echo those faced by academics and researchers across not only the many fields of chemistry, but other disciplines too. What is novel in our approach is that findings presented herein are data triangulated from three sources, together with the use of a community specific group to address these challenges. As such, rather than looking at the problems from the outside, we as a community are exploring these issues as a means to address them. There was a negative impact of rotas on the mental health, communication, and productivity of research groups. Having caring responsibilities was the largest factor for all participants regardless of age, career stage or gender. The emotional load of managing a research group through COVID-19 was an unexpected burden borne unevenly across the academic community, falling as it does predominantly on those in STEM who are more senior in their careers, and who are thus more likely to also shoulder additional senior management
responsibilities. This last factor, largely unrecognised by universities, without doubt contributed to the decision made by some women survey respondents to leave academia during/as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘I have a nursery age child and not childcare or any family nearby so I basically couldn’t do my job, which was increasingly more difficult with managing PhD students who couldn’t go into lab … I told my line manager about my lack of ability to do my job, and he just told me to make a note of it for our PDRs, which have now been cancelled.’ (Independent researcher, woman)
‘Upon returning to lab, I had lost all motivation to work. This event contributed quite strongly to my decision to leave academia.’ (Other, woman)
If chemistry and science are to continue to tackle the EDI crisis, then it is imperative that the impact of COVID-19, particularly on those with caring responsibilities, lab groups, and who are from minorities where progression is limited, is ameliorated.
It will be necessary to track whether the long-term impact of COVID-19 increases the attrition of women from chemistry and decreases the progression of minority groups.2–4 We suggest that a major tool in the arsenal used to address the lack of gender balance and diversity in science generally, and the impact of COVID-19 on those groups specifically, is establishing and growing networks of area-specific communities. This allows space for individuals to reflect on and share their lived experiences so that they are less isolated and marginalised. We offer WISC as a blueprint or model of how this may be achieved in an area-specific field that can be replicated across disciplines, borders, and communities.1
Using community to change culture
a commonly used informal description of the upper echelons of academia is a network of ‘old boys clubs’ … these ‘old boys clubs’ remain highly effective for their members, exclusionary to women, and … play a tacit role in recruitment and selection, and the furtherance of [some] men’s academic careers to the detriment of their women counterparts.5(p91)
By doing so, we aim to change the culture in chemistry and STEM which states that ‘women leaders are not common’.7(p62) Instead, we aim to build a community that looks after its own, and that supports women and other marginalised genders and groups.
We are not passive in this work, as demonstrated by WISC’s targeted clusters, each looking to provide support that is intersectional to those who face additional barriers due to the caring responsibilities of being a parent, having a disability, chronic illness, or neurodivergence, or being the first generation into higher education. Our clusters are open to everyone, regardless of gender or any other characteristic. They are there so that people can learn how to support
We are thankfully moving towards a more inclusive and diverse community in chemistry. Professional bodies like the RSC and funders such as Wellcome and the Royal Society have all stated explicitly their desire to increase diversity across the sciences. We have come a long way from the early 1920s, when scientific papers declared the toxicity of women at certain times of the month9 and used this as a reason to keep them away from science and other arenas: ‘in the 1920s Dr Béla Schick believed that menstruating women produced a toxin called menotoxin which could wilt otherwise normally thriving flowers’.8(p41) Although this theory is fortunately no longer accepted, there is a long history of women being vilified: ‘the female body has been imagined and put forward as a site of madness and badness since the time of Hippocrates’.8(p14) We still see similar arguments put forward to suppress and discriminate against those who are marginalised, for example due to being trans, brown, or Black.
When it comes to including those who are disabled, chronically ill, or neurodivergent in the lab, things are still murky. Laboratory health and safety regulations mean that there are certain restrictions on what can happen in the lab. As we saw in Chapter Six, this can impinge on freedom of choice when it comes to clothing. In addition, synthetic chemistry demands that a researcher has use of their hands,
It is likely that there will be push-back against changing labs to make them more accessible and inclusive. There will be cost and resource implications, and it would go against the way things have always been done. Although universities have a duty
The solution to the sex and gender gap is clear: we have to close the female representation gap. When women are involved in decision-making, in research, in knowledge production, women do not get forgotten. Female lives and perspectives are brought out of the shadows. This is to the benefit of women everywhere..[and] is often to the benefit of humanity as a whole.14(p318)
Collectively crafting the rhythms of our lives
support other women, engage feminist practices that consciously centre women in the story – for example, make an effort to cite women scholars or tap women for ideas; assess your participation structures to ensure that women get the floor as often as men; and mentor women coming behind you, forward them for opportunities to lead and grow … Notice inequity and challenge the normative. Learn to unsee the taken for granted.22(p82)
being a feminist means advocating for gender equality and equity, fighting for justice for women and girls, actively intervening in and speaking out against unjust practices that demean women and hold them back, and being conscious of male privilege and leveraging that toward equity and fairness for women and girls. If everyone were a feminist, we could possibly make sexism, misogyny, and gender bias our history, not our continuous present.22(p82)
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, crafting means ‘the activity or hobby of making decorative objects with your hands; or the activity of skilfully creating something such as a story’.26 Together we have crafted WISC, the work of WISC, and the outputs of WISC. In doing so we have shared with each other the details and intricacies of our lives inside and
In Chapter One we set out the reasons why we wanted to write this book. In Chapter Two we shared the details of our methodological approach, and how we created the content and research data that has informed us. In Chapter Three we discussed the challenges of building an academic identity as a woman in STEM. The picture of gender marginalisation we presented in Chapter Four can be depressing. In some ways there has been little progress or change for many years, with women today experiencing the same issues around work–life balance and discrimination faced by women in the 1970s.27 The reasons Jen L left her PhD in chemistry in the early 1990s28 are still reasons why women do not see chemistry as a sustainable or attainable career, so leave this career path in droves.2 However, excitingly there is now a willingness to change within the community. To listen to and learn from lived experience rather than deny it. To speak out rather than allow discrimination of others. This is evidenced by the publication of our EDI work in leading international chemistry journals and magazines.29,30 Chapter Five related the story of WISC, and the work we are engaged in, and Chapter Six shared stories from the ongoing collaborative autoethnography project which
On a larger scale, we believe that our experiences in the field of supramolecular chemistry, the framework we have developed, and the lessons we have learned, can be used and adapted for other chemistry and STEM disciplines where there is a gender imbalance or marginalisation. Our hope is that those who read this book, whether they are researchers, research leaders, science administrators, funders, university or industry leaders, will listen to and learn from our lived experience, and work together to craft inclusive change. If we were asked what we would want for the future, we would want 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. People would be free to choose whether they wanted to have children or not with no detriment to their careers, and could undertake work they were passionate about in environments free from harassment, in locations that suited their home and/or family life without pressure to relocate or negotiate the ‘two body problem’. It would be a scientific community that valued the contributions and wellbeing of its workers equally, and where people worked in collaboration rather than competition to produce knowledge that could make the world a better place.
Phyllis, 63, Senior researcher
It was different in my day. There just weren’t enough women about to have any sense of a community. I can see the difference it makes for the younger ones coming through to have enough of a critical mass to make a difference to each other. It felt very lonely back then – still does in a way. I think choices were starker – you either had to decide career over family, or career after family although that could mean that you just never progressed as far as your male colleagues. I don’t have children. I’ve had relationships, but never met a man that could cope with me prioritising my career in the way I had to. There have been so many women and men doing work to change things. It does make me wonder why young women are still facing the same barriers and having to make the same choices we did 30 years ago, but I suppose at least there are more of them making them. I do think there’s a real willingness to learn and to do things differently though. I mean, I can count the number of times I haven’t heard some version of ‘you only got that because you’re a woman’ when I’ve shared funding or publication success, or when I was made a Fellow. I think the more of us who are senior can stand up and shout and lend our names and support to the ones coming through the better. I mentor where I can – both officially and unofficially. What makes me so proud is that I see my male colleagues doing the same. Really championing young women. I know we need to address all kinds of diversity in chemistry – goodness knows we don’t have enough range of skin colour – but I am hopeful. I appreciate that they recognise the hard work we all put in – by doing our best to change things and in some ways just by being here and achieving what we have achieved. At least they have role models of a sort – more than I ever did. I want to be hopeful. I see all these brilliant young women, and I see them not dropping out, not leaving to a different profession, but staying, and having families, and getting the grants, and getting the papers out. One showed me a mug the other day that her wife had bought her – what did it say now? Oh yes – ‘Girls just want to have funding for scientific research!’ I thought that was a hoot! I am sometimes amazed by how bold this new generation are, how brave for calling out behaviour they will not put up with. I’m not sure that I could have back then – it felt much too risky. A lot more was just accepted as well.
If you asked me what I want for this new generation? I would say I want them to keep on being brilliant, to keep on being bold, to have ideas and to challenge us old dinosaurs. I love the way they smile and wave and get us all on side. It makes us want to work with them, and it keeps us on our toes as well! I want them to have opportunities – for scientific research, to have families, to have a life, and to have fun. I want them to remember that academia won’t love you as much as the people in your life will. That it won’t necessarily reward their long hours or dedication. It will take and take and take. I’ve heard it described as a ‘consensual abusive relationship’ and that hit home a bit! I want those coming through to have healthy, meaningful relationships with their work and the rest of their lives. I want them to keep fighting for themselves and for each other and to really change the culture of chemistry and science so that no one is marginalised anymore, and so that what really matters is the science.