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

It is not news that there is a lack of diversity in STEM. Across the world there are inequalities, and systemic and structural racism are endemic.1,2 Although the focus in this book is on gender, these things are always intersectional. When race and other factors such as religion intersect, barriers compound, and the onus is often on those who experience those barriers to educate others about their impact.3,4 Within academia it is no different: ‘we operate in the teeth of a system for which racism and sexism are primary, established, and necessary props of profit’.5(p27) Certain bodies in academia are deemed out of place, they do not belong, and as a result they get stuck.6 Diversity across academia is still something to be celebrated rather than taken as a matter of course.7 In science, ‘minoritized people of colour who participate in STEM are positioned as replacements in the mostly White STEM professoriate’,8(p1) and in the US racial diversity is lacking across every level of the education system and workforce.8 The proportion of Black professors in the US engineering and computing faculty has remained constant at around 2.5% over a ten-year period.9,10 In 2014 the proportion of Black Americans in the population was 12.4%, but less than 4% of all undergraduate and postgraduate students graduated in engineering.8 More recent data is available from the National Science Foundation, and it is clear that underrepresentation remains an issue.11 To address this lack of diversity, and to stop a system whereby students of colour are encouraged to enter a space that has systemic barriers against them, it is necessary to have ‘researchers who specialise in racism, sexism, and other forms of bias to be part of the discussion and search for solutions’.8(p5) In this way, it will reduce the likelihood that structural barriers and individual privilege will be ignored due to science being purely objective and meritocratic:

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

If we turn to look more specifically at chemistry, it is easy to see that across the chemical sciences there have been calls for action to bring more diversity into the workforce – see work by Ackerman-Biegasiewicz and colleagues,23 Menon,24 Reisman and colleagues,25 Urbina-Banca and colleagues,26 and the RSC,27 among others. There are particular issues that need to be addressed around racism. For example, within chemistry journals,28 and the lack of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic graduate students.29 These issues have been known for some time, and in the UK and US national subject-specific societies, such as the Royal Society for Chemistry27 and the American Chemical Society30 have put together concrete recommendations to address them.

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 representative of their gender or race), marginalisation (where their contributions are overlooked, ignored, or minimised), and microaggressions (frequent intentional or unintentional derogatory comments).32 Science is not as democratic and meritocratic as it could be, though hopefully times are moving on from when ‘democratisation … applied itself only sparingly to people of colour and, to a significant degree, all women in science remain unreal to the men with whom they work’.14(p54) We must acknowledge that change in a world full of tenured positions is slow by default. If the efforts of the people trying to change things are not acknowledged properly or at all, they will become frustrated and stop altogether. This is the last thing we want.

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). There may be motivating and demotivating factors from the institutional perspective, such as promotion and progression processes, performance indicators, and the like. In addition, there may be political reasons an individual might have to ‘step up’ as a role model for colleagues, students, and society.43

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 it more difficult for them to pursue a career in science.54 Unfortunately, this attitude persisted well into the 20th (if not 21st) century. While interviewing an eminent male scientist for her book Women in Science, Vivian Gornick recounted: ‘He confided in me that it was simply a matter of the nervous system … “Women may go into science, and they will do well enough, but they will never do great science”’.14(p26) This is despite assertions from male scientists that they do not have unconscious bias towards women: ‘We don’t do that … Science is objective. We only hire the best, and we know it when we see it’.50(p184) An example of such bias is how Ellen Daniell was denied tenure as the first woman in her department, despite having positive reviews from her students and recently funded grants in which she was described as having ‘a good publication record … positively cited, and appears well on the way to becoming the authority on adenovirus chromatin’.55(p58) This experience led to Daniell first leaving academia to work in industry, and later leaving science altogether. Women are often penalised with worse performance or teaching ratings than men.50

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 said “what are you working on”’.50(p63) Colwell, the first woman to lead the National Science Foundation in the US, commented: ‘women knew that men looked at them as sex objects; that was just life’.50(p63) Colwell herself was told ‘girls don’t do chemistry’.50(p7)

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 purpose of improving scientific research65 can be moderated when the reviews are published.66 However, to date there has been little work that seeks to specifically address unconscious bias towards women and other minority groups in the peer reviewing process.

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 factor that those in STEM face, and when this is looked at intersectionally, these barriers compound, contributing to a much larger overall effect.

Figure 4.1:

Institutional drivers to promote equality and inclusivity

There are institutional initiatives and drivers to promote quality and inclusivity, which include programmes such as the US POWRE (Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education) from the National Science Foundation. Evaluating the programme after it had been in place for a decade, Sue Rosser found that women still experienced continued barriers around balancing career and family, their low numbers, stereotypes held by others, the context of tight resources, which particularly impacted women, and overt discrimination and harassment.59 Lessons have been learned from the US ADVANCE programme.69 This programme to address organisational change for gender equity in STEM directed $130 million to encouraging institutions to evolve policies and practices that supported women. In the UK, the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) is a national scheme that promotes and certifies gender equality. It was initially managed by the Equality Challenge Unit, which is now part of AdvanceHE. Athena SWAN was originally set up with the principle that in order to address gender inequalities, there needed to be commitment and action from people at all levels of an institution. It had the aim to tackle gender imbalance in science, unrepresentative cultures and attitudes, and to do this through addressing the personal and structural obstacles women face.70 The initiative has since expanded to encompass all disciplines and include an institutional level of certification, but critical questions remain as to whether it has in fact reduced sexism in science or academia, and whether Athena SWAN has become less about doing gender equality, and more about certifying gender equality.70 Similar initiatives exist for promoting inclusivity in UK academia, including the Race Equality Charter, Disability Charter, Stonewall, and the like. However, as with Athena SWAN, there needs to be a continual process of questioning and refining the impact they have on policies, procedures, and cultures. These drivers need to be examined critically, as Campion and Clark did for the Race Equality Charter, so that ideals are translated into actions.71 Campion and Clark wrote:

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)

At the level of individual funders and professional bodies, there is also ongoing work in this area. For example, the Royal Society for Chemistry has collated data on bias and discrimination against women and is putting into place an action plan, as it has done to support chemists who are LGBT+, and is working to support those with disabilities.27 But there is little literature around the experiences of those who choose to stay and who want to progress in the field. This means there is a need for a publication dealing with the particular context they face, and providing narratives of their subjective, lived experiences. Within science generally, and specifically within chemistry, there is a focus on numbers, rather than lived experience. This book, and the work of WISC more generally (see Chapter Five) is looking to address this, by creating a sense of community, kinship, and a programme of subject-specific support and mentoring.

Community and mentoring

When Colwell was setting out a list of things to reform in science, she stated:

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 women need to find role models and mentors to support their journey.56 Similarly, Daniell uses the model of support she received from her Every Other Thursday group, and suggests that ‘regular meetings, with the objective of advice and support in a confidential context, is critical to groups and other mentoring relationships’.55(p174) They are not alone. Mary Ann Mason advocates that women find themselves a mentor, although she acknowledges that ‘mentors are not easy to find, in part because it is not usually in anyone’s job description. As women rise in their careers they must make sure they bring younger women along with them and take responsibility for setting up a mentoring program in their workplace’.72(p117) Mason goes on to say that support networks are critical in order to recruit and retain women in science: ‘continuous practical and emotional support is needed, and is a key to women’s success in research and academic science’.72(p119) Across much of Sue Rosser’s work on women in science and STEM she has been consistent with her message pleading for the structures and systems to change and do more to help women, as much as for women to come together in order to advocate for themselves and find ways to become a critical mass and be present in the spheres from which they have traditionally been absent in science.56,59,73,74 Similarly, Emily Yarrow stresses the importance of community networks for women in academia,75 and Mahat and colleagues include finding a trusted mentor in their strategies for thriving in academia.76 The message seems clear, and is supported by many others who write from their own experiences as women in a marginalised environment:77,78 Find your community, meet with them regularly, and share what you are going through in order to access practical and emotional support in a safe space.

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 a more informal routine. Such communities, and places to share experiences without judgement, have been particularly vital during the 2020/21 COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout lockdown the ordinary, everyday pressures of academia and managing a work–life balance were exacerbated for many due to the additional load of homeschooling for those with children at home, pivoting to online learning, and the emotional burden of worry and fear for friends, families, and research groups (see Figure 4.2). In Chapter Six we share stories and experiences from our own regular meetings through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 4.2:
Figure 4.2:

COVID-19 ‘Can you mind the baby?’ ‘Buried and burned’

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 …

Still, at least I haven’t experienced any direct discrimination! Some of the things I’ve heard, particularly at conferences! Conferences are good when there are other women about; it can feel a bit intimidating when you’re on your own. These days I have a little group of other women that I tend to stick with. Some of the things they’ve told me … Senior professors asking them what underwear they have on, being told that they shouldn’t be in the lab because their hands are too small to hold solvent bottles, or their wombs will sink because women aren’t meant to stand up at a fume hood! It didn’t seem to occur to that prof that women also have to stand up if they stay in the kitchen … I don’t think they are trying to be sexist, they just don’t realise that we face a barrage of little comments and innuendos all the time and it gets tiring.