This final chapter looks to the future, and discusses 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.

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 of the two initial research projects described previously, we have received further funding to focus on expanding the model and framework of WISC into Africa, with the aim of increasing the visibility of Black women in science, and to support those who wish to further develop WISC as a part of independent fellowship awards. In addition, despite having been in existence formally for only a year and a half, WISC was put forward for three EDI prizes in 2021.

Triangulating data

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.

The return to labs was interesting, in that different institutions handled the social distancing requirements very differently. Some asked group leaders to split their researchers, with only half the group accessing the lab at any one time, but allowing the group as a whole to have continuous access. Others put whole groups onto a rota with others, so that the group only had access to the lab half the time, but the researchers within that group were all together for the time they had. Many students shared that returning to the labs was hard:

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.

The worry of carrying responsibility for a whole group through the pandemic was challenging for everyone. Other group leaders shared similar experiences, again particularly those who had additional caring responsibilities at home:

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.

We concluded the article by writing about the process of conducting the research and participating in the collaborative autoethnography and/or reflective group sessions:

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.24 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

WISC aspire to use community, and the building of communities, in order to change culture, to inspire, and to reach out to others. The work we have developed has allowed us to build ‘solidarity, friendship, and the development of supportive networks both in “real life” and online [which have played] an important role in feelings of connectedness, academic community making, and can also be beneficial to women navigating the gendered community’.5(p95) Our approach of regular meetings giving members opportunity to share and reflect is mirrored in the ‘Group’ described by Ellen Daniell in Every Other Thursday.6 We, like Daniell’s ‘Group’, aim to create an alternative to the old boys’ club version of academia we shared in Chapter Three:

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 themselves, and also how to support others, and to make informed choices from a position of knowledge. The choice of whether to have children or not is an example of this. In Chapter Three we discussed the fact that so few women in supramolecular chemistry (or science) reach the most senior career levels and also have a family. While all women to some degree experience ‘the guilt of not doing the right thing, of making the right decision, [which] weighs heavily on our shoulders. If we decide to be mothers, we face the motherhood penalty’,8(p130) women who want to pursue a career in science have very few role models or people who have carved out a path for them to follow.

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, legs, and adequate vision to do the job and be aware of their surroundings. Customs and practices demand that fumehoods and benches are fixed at heights suitable for the ‘average’ researcher. In other words, they are designed for the average man. This can mean that labs are less accessible to those with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and neurodivergences, or for anyone who is smaller or taller than the average. They do not, as standard practice, have facilities that are wheelchair accessible, or that even contain comfortable seats that people can sit down and work on. Instead, hard wooden stools shaped to the average man’s buttocks are the norm. Labs are pressured working environments that are often noisy, and have little privacy. WISC’s Disability/Chronic Illness/Neurodivergence Cluster has recently begun exploring a project of work that is looking to design a virtual accessible and inclusive lab of the future funded by the RSC. Through consulting with chemists who currently work in labs, and who have a disability, chronic illness, or neurodivergence, the cluster will create a 3D virtual lab that can be used to raise awareness of the issues that face people in the current standard set-up. This project emerged from a discussion after a member thought that she had broken her leg, and wanted to know whether she would be allowed into the lab with a cast or in a wheelchair (the answer was no, due to health and safety concerns). The future lab would potentially include accessible seating, fumehoods that span floor to ceiling with adjustable benches to accommodate those of different heights, comfortable stools, sound-proofed areas for writing up, while remaining close enough to visually observe experiments, and platform-sharing technology so that automated experiments could be run remotely with no requirement to be physically present just to press a button to start a machine.

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 in the UK to put reasonable adjustments in place, accessibility has not often had to be a consideration within labs because of the lack of people requiring (or disclosing that they require) such adjustments. If no one is asking for changes to be made, then that can be taken to mean that there is no demand for those changes. This conceals the needs of those who do not fit to the norm. The lack of diversity creates a culture which either does not welcome inclusion or fails to recognise where it does not welcome inclusion. This is a vicious cycle that results in systemic discrimination against those who are different.1012 There is also the question ‘but where do we draw the line?’ Legitimately, some careers are just not suitable for some people. If you are blind, can you be a driving instructor? If you have severe physical disabilities, is pursuing a career in a synthetic chemistry lab the most realistic option, or could you instead focus on computational aspects of chemistry? The challenge is ensuring that such decisions are made by the individual in their own best interests, and not forced on them by an environment that is inaccessible to their reasonable needs and that health and safety is not weaponised to keep them out. Are those with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and neurodivergences not in the lab because they do not see it as a place they are welcome? Or are they there, and just not disclosing, and so putting up with uncomfortable working conditions?13

The fact that labs were designed for the average man would come as no surprise to Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data in a World Designed for Men. At the end of her book she writes:

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)

WISC’s work to support the retention and progression of women will help them to be involved in research and knowledge production, and to become senior enough in their careers to be involved in decision making. However, being involved in WISC will not be a guarantee to success. The current climate in higher education and research is constrained due to the COVID-19 pandemic and wider financial context, and as such academia, along with many other industries, has become even more intensified in its competitiveness. The numbers of students graduating with a PhD is far in excess of opportunities in academia, whether they are postdoctoral or permanent positions. Post-docs in particular can be very precarious,15,16 and experiences vary depending on the individual PI17 or training opportunities.18 Critiques of the system and options for post-docs have been suggested.1921 Mentoring programmes such as those offered through WISC, along with the support clusters and community building, can work to ameliorate the isolation and anxiety faced by many at this career stage, which could lead them towards leaving academia and/or science completely.2

Collectively crafting the rhythms of our lives

Throughout this book, and in all the work that WISC is involved in, we have consciously done our best, in the words of A. Lin Goodwin, to:

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)

By employing feminist research practices23 and utilising Embodied Inquiry24 we have shown how breaking out of disciplinary norms to take an embodied and authentic approach to research allows the heretofore invisible and hidden experiences to become stories that touch and evoke responses. It has allowed us to reflect on research practices, to process, to listen, and to enact change. We have been able to pay attention to the rhythms of our work and our lives, and to take time to notice whether we want our individual situations to change, and how. It has been a collaborative journey, not a journey we undertook individually. In the words of the African proverb: ‘if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others’. In WISC Board meetings we have often reflected that it is the combination of people and skills that has allowed us to achieve so much in so little time, and on top of our day-to-day academic and personal commitments. We devote time to this work because we are passionate about it, and proud of it. We are proud to say that we are intersectional feminists,25 and proud to say that we will fight for women and other marginalised genders or groups.

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 outside the lab. We discovered where our experiences echoed and resonated with each other, regardless of age, disability, religion, ethnicity, or where in the world we lived. Pragya Argawal wrote: ‘sometimes lives only take meaning when we look at them from the outside. When we are inside them, they often seem just ordinary’.8(p2) Our lives are ordinary to us. Throughout this book we have shared aspects from our lives in the hope that these ordinary experiences of discrimination due to gender can be more widely recognised and eliminated. Using our stories together in order to craft other stories, such as the wider narrative here and the individual fictional vignettes, will hopefully allow others to recognise themselves and their own experiences, as well as helping those who have not lived with such marginalisations to learn about the barriers, challenges, and joy of being a woman in supramolecular chemistry.

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 ran throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In this chapter we have shared insight and data from WISC’s second survey and set out how we believe that building a sense of kinship and community is changing the supramolecular chemistry community for the better.

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.

*

Some of the data in this chapter has been previously published in CHEM,1 and is reproduced with kind permission from Cell Press and Elsevier.

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