Introductions commonly set the scene for a book, and let the reader know what they can look forward to, what will be included in the content, what the book is and who it is aimed at. Before starting that more conventional introduction, however, first we want to set out what this book is not. This book is not an account of how hard women and other marginalised groups have it in science. It does not contain victim stories or whistleblowing from women in supramolecular chemistry who have an axe to grind and want to call out all the men who have been mean to them. We should note at this point that in this chapter we do discuss sexual harassment and this may be distressing for those who have experienced it. We recognise that whistleblowing is a courageous act done often by those who have been subjected to trauma, and we respect, support, and thank all those who share their often difficult and traumatic stories. However, we wanted to go about things differently.

Introductions commonly set the scene for a book, and let the reader know what they can look forward to, what will be included in the content, what the book is and who it is aimed at. Before starting that more conventional introduction, however, first we want to set out what this book is not. This book is not an account of how hard women and other marginalised groups have it in science. It does not contain victim stories or whistleblowing from women in supramolecular chemistry who have an axe to grind and want to call out all the men who have been mean to them. We should note at this point that in this chapter we do discuss sexual harassment and this may be distressing for those who have experienced it. We recognise that whistleblowing is a courageous act done often by those who have been subjected to trauma, and we respect, support, and thank all those who share their often difficult and traumatic stories. However, we wanted to go about things differently. A book of victim stories might gain traction, it might be ‘clickbait’ for those who want to read a tell-all about life in science, but it would do nothing for the careers of those who wrote it and those it seeks to help. Confessional books such as that, stories such as those, tend to be shared by women towards the end of their careers, when they have left science, or when they have retired – see, for example, work by Rita Colwell1, Ellen Daniell2, Sue Rosser35, and Vivian Gornick6. These stories are important and very much need to be told. However, women at that point in their life have little to lose by calling out sexual harassment, recounting tales of being ignored, overlooked, and disregarded. In contrast, the authors here are all women in their early-to-mid career stages, who are working (with the one exception of our social scientist) to establish themselves as researchers and leaders in their field of supramolecular chemistry. They are women who are committed to changing things, to making things better for themselves and those women who will follow them, and whose time is spent doing and researching science in laboratories and in their discipline. We ‘call in’ the community to support those who are marginalised,7 and share how this might bring about positive change. This is not to say we are whitewashing the very real challenges faced by women and other marginalised genders.* Drawing on the example of Black feminist researchers: ‘To only focus on the strengths, accomplishments and victories does not give sufficient attention to the system of domination’.8(pxii) We want to walk in the footsteps of the women who have walked before us,9 be agents of change, and continue to bring awareness to the idea of gender and other marginalisations within science.

Who this book is for and why it matters

This book is for everyone who works in supramolecular chemistry, chemistry, and science. It is for the university and research administrators, the funders, the reviewers, and all the people who make the decisions that are responsible for marginalising women and others. As the majority of these people are still men, this book is for those men, so that they can change the balance of gender in science.

Why do we need to talk about gender in relation to science? Why do we still need to talk about gender in relation to science? Isn’t this old hat now? Sara Ahmed wrote, ‘it can be deemed more old-fashioned to point out that only white men are speaking at an event than to have only white men speaking at an event’.10(p155) Similarly, is it more old-fashioned to point out that there is a need to talk about the lack of gender balance and diversity than it is to just carry on as we are? To an extent this is true. It can seem old-fashioned and regressive to keep banging on about gender. But there is a need for change. In 2019, the Royal Society of Chemistry wrote that at the current rate of change we would never reach gender parity in the chemical sciences.11 There has been progress since the 1960s when ‘chemistry department heads said as openly as they had in 1940: “we don’t hire women”’.6(p88) By the 1980s in the same department they said: ‘The chemistry department here doesn’t advertise. It’s illegal now, but they still do it that way. Somehow, they consider it a “shame” to advertise. They write to their friends. And of course their friends are men who have only male graduate students’.6(p88) Things have definitely moved on from then; numbers of women undergraduates, postgraduates, and faculty have increased since the 1970s,5 although ‘the cutting edge of science and engineering remain out of the reach of the vast majority if not all women’.5(p49) In 2008, Aviva Brecher looked back over her career and expressed shock about the women starting their scientific careers: ‘it is astonishing that they are asking today the same questions about how to successfully manage and blend careers in science with the demands of motherhood and family life we struggled to solve thirty years ago’.12(p25) However, choices and challenges balancing life are not the only ones that a woman working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) will encounter.

The struggles faced by women and other marginalised genders are not new, and many of these struggles are based around how their bodies are seen and treated in the world. In 2006, Tarana Burke initiated the #MeToo movement on social media. Its original intention was to empower women with a sense of solidarity and through strength in numbers. In 2017, this hashtag was adopted by Alyssa Milano in response to the allegations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. She wrote on Twitter: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’.13 Women began using it to talk about experiences of sexual assault, including high-profile women across a multitude of sectors. The hashtag trended in over 85 countries. In 2021, the website Everyone’s Invited14 caught the attention of the media in the UK.1517 A place where women were asked to share testimonials of abuse they had experienced within institutions of education and/or work, dedicated to eradicating rape culture through conversation, the site had attracted 14,000 testimonies by the end of March 2021, and 51,000 by the middle of July 2021.

Women are not generally encouraged to speak out about their experiences. According to Rape Crisis 20% of women have been assaulted since the age of 16,18 but conviction rates are shockingly low when compared to other crimes.19 Dame Vera Baird, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, said: ‘We have seen a seismic collapse in rape charging and prosecutions’, with only 1.6% of reported rapes resulting in a charge or summons for the perpetrator.20 However, as might be gathered from the response to #MeToo and www.EveryonesInvited.uk, it is likely that even these official statistics underplay the situation. According to the Brennan Centre for Justice, in the US up to 80%21 of rapes may go unreported, and in the UK up to 85%.20 Sexual assault and sexual harassment cover a wide gambit of crimes, including rape and much, much more. In a context where women are routinely blamed for ‘asking for trouble’ or putting themselves into dangerous situations such as walking outside in the dark, wearing clothes that are too revealing, or drinking too much, lived experiences of harassment and abuse are endemic, and this as true for women who work in STEM as in any other field.

Women are used to being blamed, being questioned, having their legitimacy, their choices, and their authority interrogated in many aspects of their day-to-day lives. Many have internalised misogyny, in the same way that many disabled people internalise ableism22 and people of colour internalise racism.23 Since classical times, there has been a tacit acceptance that public spaces belong to men.24 The very suggestion, made by Jenny Jones in the House of Lords, that men should have a curfew as they are responsible for 97% of all violent attacks resulted in ‘a massive misogynistic hissy fit of outrage. Most were completely blind to the ways that women have to constantly adapt their lives in reaction to male violence’.25 Women, on the other hand, belong in the private spaces, the domesticated spaces. And there they should stay. They are wives, mothers, sisters, daughters. Their worth is determined by their relationship to the men around them. Women and feminism have done much to challenge this culture, but at the time of writing the patriarchy and male violence towards women remain a pervading and pervasive truth which impacts how women live their lives.

Women in STEM, women in science, and women in chemistry are still women. When we talk about numbers of women in scientific disciplines, when we talk about neoliberal cultures of overwork and hyperproductivity, when we talk about isolation and the loneliness of women working within environments that are dominated by men, we cannot ignore that these women are still women, whether they have a womb or not. When a woman is choosing whether to work late in the lab, she has to do so with the knowledge that it is not just about a choice to work late. It is a choice to work late in a room or building where there is minimal presence of others (and those who are there are likely to be male). It is about the choice to walk from that building alone, and to make her way home alone, walking, on public transport, or in a car, and then to enter her home, alone. These choices will be mediated by her identity, and whether in addition to being a woman she is trans, neurodivergent, a woman of colour, or has a disability, for example. Each of these intersecting identities present additional risk, additional factors that may balance her choice to work late, or leave while it is still light, or when others are leaving. This train of thought may seem trivial to any man who only has to weigh up the choice of working late or not despite the vast majority of violent attacks being male-on-male violence. However, as events such as those of the week of 15 March 2021 in the UK highlighted,26 together with ongoing campaigns such as #ReclaimThe Street, for a woman they can be a matter of life and death, or at least a life free from the threat of rape or sexual assault (this particular week included International Women’s Day; a highly publicised interview with a former princess revealing mental health issues; the discovery of the body of a white woman murdered in London by a serving Metropolitan Police officer; victim-blaming in the media; disruption of peaceful vigils by the Metropolitan Police; and Mother’s Day). When we look at the history of women in science, and we look at the perspectives on why there is a lack of gender balance, as well as discounting outmoded beliefs that women just are not capable of cutting-edge research,6 we also need to address the context within which women in science operate. If we are to look comprehensively at the experiences of women in science, then we need to foreground their experiences as women.

Women in science

The numbers show that there has been bias and marginalisation of many different groups in science; this is indisputable.5,11,27,28 This is not due to lack of scientific interest by women: ‘women have always been interested in science. The fact is, women have been actively excluded from science’.1(p182) Since Victorian times, attitudes and beliefs that women were inferior to men made it more difficult to pursue a career in science.29 Once thought of as a profession for the ‘sons of educated men’, now it is widely recognised that science needs to be diversified because:

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.1(p194)

In order to get the very best and brightest working on the huge problems that face our world today – global warming, global pandemics, hunger, poverty, and health to name a few – then we need to be fishing in a pool that includes everyone. This book goes beyond these numbers that demonstrate so clearly that there is a problem in science. Those numbers have been recorded and reported at least since the 1970s, and yet the pace of change has slowed and stalled:

The percentage of women on the faculty of MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] School of Science went from zero in 1963 to 8 percent in 1995 to 19.2 percent in 2014. But since then, the drive toward equality has stalled. There were fourteen women faculty members in MIT’s biology department in 2009 – and there were still fourteen ten years later in 2019. The proportion of women faculty in biology and chemistry actually decreased during that time.1(p75)

Gender equality has been identified as a goal worthy of global challenge by the United Nations.30 The need to address equality diversity and inclusion in science has been foregrounded by the NSA (National Science Academy), UKRI (UK Research & Innovation), and professional bodies, even before the 2020 pandemic and its impact on gender balance.31,32

This book seeks to humanise the experiences of those women in STEM, reaching out with embodied stories to evoke responses as to why this lack of gender balance and diversity matters, why it is important, and what impact it has on those who are affected by it. We are all, as authors, passionate about this topic. Throughout, we keep ‘a strong presence of emotional investment visible’.33(p23) In order to do this, we include images created during and for our research along with vignettes throughout each chapter. The vignettes are fictionalised composite stories that have been written in response to the findings of WISC’s ongoing research (see Chapter Five for the story of WISC and its current projects and Chapter Two for an exploration of the methods and approach used). They are used to highlight the personal stories and lived experiences of women in supramolecular chemistry in a way that does not allow individuals to be scapegoated, blamed, or identified in any way. This is an effort to avoid the repercussions on individuals as a result of ‘whistleblowing’ or complaining.34 None of the stories told in the vignettes are ‘real’, but all are true, and draw on lived experiences.

The stories of women in STEM have been a subject of interest for a long time, from women scientists in the First World War,29 to reminiscences from women looking back at their careers in science in the 1980s.6 This book adds to that literature, and differs from it in two important ways. First, it takes a field-specific approach. While the issues and experiences that we highlight here are common to many women in STEM, STEM is not a monolith: it comprises/represents many different disciplines. Any conclusions drawn from data collected will depend upon the agency collating it and which disciplines are included in that agency’s investigation. Some disciplines and fields have made much more progress towards equality, diversity, and inclusion than others in the last 50 years, and therefore the discrimination faced by women and other marginalised groups is not the same in each discipline. For example, some studies include the physical sciences, others separate out psychology, and yet others include psychology and medicine, which both have a good representation of women. The discrimination faced by women and other marginalised groups is not the same in each discipline. This book focuses in on one field of chemistry – supramolecular chemistry – and the perceptions and experiences of those who work within it (see Figure 1.1, which shows one author’s response to the prompt ‘who are you as a chemist?’).

Figure 1.1:
Figure 1.1:

What is a chemist?

All of the images in this book are the authors’ own.

Second, this book is not written about women in STEM. It is written by and with them. The authors all took part in work that set out to use creative and embodied approaches to capture stories, build community, and identify a toolkit for women who want to progress in the field. The timing of this project coincided with the 2020/21 COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, and as such records the experiences of women scientists as they navigated through life inside and outside laboratories. The authors range in age from their 20s to mid-40s, and represent the range of early, mid, and senior career scientists with and without children. The topics that they discussed and explored led to themes that are included in this book: the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated sphere; the fight for lab space; the pressure and responsibility towards their teams. They represent a diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and disability. They include those who chose to leave the chemical sciences and academia in addition to those who chose to remain. This work was supported through WISC, an international network for Women in Supramolecular Chemistry, with the aim to support equality and diversity.

WISC aspires to be an agent of change. It launched in November 2019. Since its launch the network has created a website and resource bank35 (www.womeninsuprachem.com), conducted a survey of the supramolecular community, initiated small-group mentoring, and published a paper outlining the ethos of ‘calling in’ the community and the network’s approach to combining qualitative research methods and expertise in EDI (equality/equity, diversity, and inclusion), together with findings from the first survey of the supramolecular chemistry community in Angewandte Chemie, a leading international chemistry journal,7 and from a second survey on lived experiences through COVID-19 in CHEM.36 The network has set up an international board and advisory board. It has led a series of panel events (in-person pre-COVID and online) in collaboration with MASC (the Royal Society of Chemistry special interest group for Macrocyclic and Supramolecular Chemistry) and virtual MASC (the online, early-career arm of MASC). WISC’s first skills workshop for early-career researchers was originally organised in September 2020, but was postponed to September 2021 in Cagliari.37 The WISC has set up support clusters – groups where individuals can share experiences and support and learn more about supporting others. These include a parenting cluster, a disability, chronic illness, and neurodivergence cluster, and one for first-generation chemists. These clusters are all open to new people joining them – they are not limited to women only, although women have been the primary members to date. WISC is always interested to hear about ideas for new clusters, and from people wanting to be part of WISC and to help out. The network has an inclusive approach, with the majority of resources open to anyone, regardless of gender, location, or career stage. It tries to identify issues that affect women within the community, then create resources that are open to anyone experiencing those issues. A key example of this is the parenting cluster. Caring responsibilities disproportionately fall to women, but parents of any gender are welcome in the cluster because the issues can affect them too. This was demonstrated through the pandemic.36,38 WISC is actively researching into how teams can communicate, collaborate, and be more effective by incorporating creative and reflective processes into teamwork, and it is exploring the particular challenges that face women who are Principal Investigators (PIs) and lead teams, and how these findings might be used within public engagement. WISC is passionate about creating a sense of kinship and community, and spaces where women and those who are marginalised can share their experiences and learn from others.

Those who are involved in running WISC are all early-to-mid career scientists, with support from more senior colleagues. They have all invested time and energy in WISC because they believe that there is work to be done to ensure the retention, progression, and support of women in the field, and because they believe in the ethos WISC has taken to bring about positive change. The two factors that make the work WISC does stand out from the more general efforts to support women in science are their commitments to a field-specific approach that calls in the community, and the inclusion of a reflective, qualitative, social science approach at every step. WISC would like to think that its work might act as a model to those in other fields and disciplines who are keen to address EDI issues, and are happy to talk to and collaborate with others who would be interested to learn more.

Building community

One of WISC’s aims is to build community and create a sense of kinship for women and those who are marginalised. This book is for all those who work in supramolecular chemistry, in chemistry, in science, and who need to know that they are not alone. While academia remains ‘the (stereotypically) masculine and isolated place it was designed to be – a place free from children, romantic relationships, and personal problems and lives’,39(p160) it can be intimidating for women to talk openly about their personal lives. Sue Rosser wrote: ‘No one likes to feel as if they must give up their femininity, motherhood, or another characteristic they view as core to their identity in order to fit into their profession’.4(p78) Things have come a long way since 1988, when Traweek described the laboratory as ‘a man’s world’.3(p46) Women and those from minority backgrounds are still underrepresented, particularly at the more senior levels, making the journey towards full professorship appear daunting. For those who persevere, it can be hard to find success due to conscious, unconscious or systemic bias. It can be isolating as a member of a minority group; ‘storming the tower is a lonely business, as any academic woman who has tried can tell you’.40(p1) Marginalisation in higher education (HE) is often thought to correlate with characteristics of the individual, such as colour, ethnicity, disability, class, and access. In terms of gender, we know that women in academia are disproportionately affected by funding structures, academic culture, research environment, and caring responsibilities. A body of work exists on academic identity and women’s lived experiences as they negotiate and resist structural inequalities. However, the voices of women in STEM and their embodied stories are largely absent.

In WISC we found a group willing to trust, to innovate, and to step out of their disciplinary norms and play with qualitative research and new ideas. In doing so, the group found support and connection to understand their experiences at work, with their research teams, and to reflect on how they wanted to progress in their careers. There is an assumption within science (particularly supramolecular chemistry) that corresponding authors and team leaders are men, or women without caring responsibilities. During lockdown in the UK, one supramolecular chemist with a young child received a reviewer comment on a journal article: ‘this team likely has time on their hands in the light of current in-lab restrictions’. She told us that while reading it she was literally trying to keep her daughter out of the cat food: “I feel physically sick at the thought of work right now.” This book is not a collection of victim stories, it does not call out, name, and shame the senior men and institutions that perpetuate a culture of discrimination and harassment towards women. Instead it highlights the importance of community and how scientists can utilise social science methodologies for processing, sharing, and learning from experiences.

This book is uniquely positioned to set out the context for women and other marginalised groups in the field, and to share the invisible, embodied, emotional experiences of women in supramolecular chemistry, particularly as they navigate through and beyond Covid-19 and its effects on the higher education sector. It brings together findings from WISC and reflective narratives on the embodied and emotional experiences of academic work in a field dominated by white men. It is a significant contribution to work on academic identity and gender because it captures the embodied voices of women in STEM.

What’s in the book

In Chapter Two we explain the reasoning and approach behind embedding a qualitative approach into our research, and why we believe it is necessary to use methods such as collaborative autoethnography and Embodied Inquiry. We discuss the meanings of these terms, explain what this equates to in terms of doing research, and how we set about creating the fictional vignettes that are included in the next six chapters.

Chapter Three explores the process of building an academic identity in STEM as a woman, and what is valued and rewarded in an academic career. We consider the idea of wellbeing and overwork in academia, and take a close look at how choices around motherhood can impact a scientific career. Finally, we look at options for those who choose to leave academia.

Chapter Four examines the challenges faced by women and other marginalised groups, and the lack of diversity in STEM as a whole. We consider the discrimination that results from sexism, racism, and ableism, some of the institutional drivers that are being put in place to address this, and how community and mentoring can play a part to offset the isolation and negative career impacts of being marginalised.

Chapter Five sets out the history of WISC, its ethos of ‘calling in’ and not ‘calling out’ the supramolecular community. We share the projects and initiatives we have worked on to date, including our first survey, our mentoring programme, support clusters, skills workshop, and ongoing research. We also share the publications that have resulted from our work so far, and our aspirations and plans for the future.

Chapter Six draws strongly on the collaborative autoethnography project to create stories from STEM which demonstrate a reflection of life as women principal investigators. The themes that resonated with us as a group were around overwork, self-care and community, femininity, and the emotional toll of working through this period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, Chapter Seven looks towards the future. We share findings from WISC’s second survey, and show how we triangulated the data from that survey together with data from the collaborative autoethnography and the reflective work with individual research groups, to throw light on experiences of researchers and research leaders through COVID-19. We discuss the importance of community in creating change, and how WISC’s work fits into wider, intersectional feminist goals. We end by thinking of the inclusive future that we would like to help create in science.

*

Our use of ‘women’ includes trans women. We use ‘marginalised genders’ to also include non-binary people and trans men.

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