A chemical imbalance: investigating inequality
Women in Tech Edinburgh Chemistry has an encouragingly high number of female students and academics: 30 per cent of our professors are women, while the UK average is 11 per cent.
Figuring out the cause of the imbalance
While we are still a long way from equal, we wanted to see if there was anything in particular we had done right. To make A Chemical Imbalance I hired a journalist and two film- makers, all Edinburgh alumni, to help investigate.
We sent questionnaires to Edinburgh’s current chemists and alumni of all ages, and to many other UK chemists, through social media.
We received responses from more than 700 people of all backgrounds and ages, including an important but harder-to-access (for a geek like me) group of people who had moved out of science. We also had some inspirational anecdotes. I am hugely grateful to all those who took time to reply to yet another survey.
We interviewed chemists of all academic levels, and ex-chemists, such as Dr Elaine Murray MSP. We asked about factors that affected their career directions such as mentoring, role-models, conscious and unconscious bias, and family-friendly policies.
But analysis of the data did not reveal a magic bullet. If it had, that would suggest there was a simple solution – which of course would mean we’d have solved the equality problem by now.
We are unconvinced by continued calls for inquiries that produce familiar mixtures of issues. We are calling for action now, before the hard work of the generation above us is lost through complacency.
Here are our four action points to drive progress towards equality in the workplace:
Monitor our numbers
Monitoring is not about establishing quotas, it’s about removing an unconscious bias. We’ve nearly eradicated overt dinosaur sexism but research studies show consistently subconscious biased behaviour in many subject areas. We need to know ourselves and our biases to avoid lapsing back into hiring in our own image.
Mentor our people and make sure the best are applying
The thing that marks out Edinburgh as different, and the point that came up repeatedly in interviews, is the effect that mentoring can have. While I understand that everyone’s busy and academics are mostly introverts, communicating with our young talents is crucial.
The saying goes that women wait until they’re 120 per cent ready but men wait until 80per cent. If our youngsters perceive themselves not to be good enough, even if it’s not true, we’ve already lost them. And many hiring panels could also benefit from mentoring.
Create a workplace that supports everyone and allows flexibility
Creating a workplace in which everyone wants to work is something I’d like to change about society, not just the odd chemistry department.
Allowing human beings flexibility to deal with all the messy parts of their lives might give our brains the space to come up with even better science.
Reclaim the meaning of feminism
Asking interviewees about the f-word was a huge shock for me. Are you a feminist? It’s a simple question that tied my male and female colleagues in knots.
The saying goes that women wait until they’re 120 per cent ready but men wait until 80per cent. If our youngsters perceive themselves not to be good enough, even if it’s not true, we’ve already lost them.
The answers made me laugh out loud. I felt naïve. And then angry. Everyone was in agreement on all the other difficult themes we probed, but hardly anyone admitted to being a feminist. Since I outed myself as a feminist a few months ago, 7,000 people have visited “A Chemical Imbalance” and scores of men have felt able to tell me they are also feminists. I am hopeful that we can reclaim the word and its simplest message of equality.
In the meantime by mentoring and seeking mentoring, I think we stand the best chance of building talented and diverse teams.
And mentoring starts with just being nice to people. Shouldn’t be so hard – should it?