Where are all the Chicks?

I go to lunch every day in the site canteen with my work colleagues. “Work colleagues” refers to the senior scientists in my Department: postdoctoral-level organic chemists with various office and lab-based responsibilities. I wasn’t entirely sure at the beginning if I’d be out of place amongst them, because I’m a 9-5 lab worker (a “lab rat” as I call myself) who is yet to obtain her PhD. However, I decided to take my chances with the Scientists. And it works out nicely.

...On the subject of gender stereotypes...Oh dear. Put it away love, PPE regulations require you wear trousers when handling carcinogenic reagents.

The thing I’m noticing though, is that most days I’m the only female at our table. There are several female scientists but in fewer numbers, so of course I’m statistically less likely to join them over lunch break. There are plenty of ladies working in our building, but the bulk of them are Technicians, who don’t need a chemistry degree to work in a lab.

Which is odd. At the University of Edinburgh there were plenty of females in my class. I’m not sure what the male-female ratio was for my Chemistry year group, but it wasn’t so imbalanced that I ever noticed.

I’ve been getting an application together for an International Fellowship from the Association of American University Women, and so have been reading up about “women in STEM jobs” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). So yes, right now I’ve got women scientists on the brain. And I have to conclude that there *is* a gender imbalance in the pharmaceutical industry: there *are* fewer senior female scientists, fewer female managers and a higher proportion of women in the lower-paid technician jobs.


That stuff about women having brains which are not suited to hard (physical) sciences? Rubbish. With hard work, innate intelligence and a willingness to learn women can overcome any spatial awareness disadvantage they might possess. Like I said, I have lots of female chemistry friends from my time as an undergraduate: trust me, they were smart. They all got great degree results without breaking a sweat. The physical sciences never once disadvantaged them.

Alright then. Where did my graduate friends end up?

Well, we got an impressive mix of destinations. Some of my friends are taking gap years – a few looking for sciencey jobs, some undecided. A handful are back in further study – PhDs, teaching qualifications. A surprising number have ended up in non-science jobs.

Ernst & Young. Proctor & Gamble, PwC. I’m not even sure what these firms DO (accountancy?), but I’ve known about their existence from the start of my time at university. They recruit heavily at Edinburgh and have a year-round presence on campus: they give regular presentations, put up posters, give out pens at fairs and have their own Campus Brand Managers.  They claim to recruit only the most exceptional graduates from all disciplines; they offer very structured graduate programs and start the recruitment process in December for programs beginning next September.

You can see why smart graduates would be interested in applying for these jobs (a) they pay well and accept the brightest students (b) By March of your graduation year you’ll have secured a full-time graduate job, which is incredibly comforting to know (c) the recruiters are coming to you, you don’t even need to print out an application form! Some of my smartest chemistry friends have got places with these firms and are already kicking off their working life.

To compensate for the above "sexy female scientist" picture (and make this long post more interesting). Here, have a handsome man in a lab coat.

Thought Number 1. Perhaps the STEM industry is missing a trick. Would a stronger presence on university campuses and well-advertised elite Graduate Program (Dec deadline, first-class Honours) attract intelligent students of both genders in droves? 

Or is the problem coming much earlier in the pipeline? When people ask me what I do/what I study, I reply that I’m a Chemist. “Oh! I was never any good at chemistry at school…” is the stereotypical response. Usually from the females, I must admit. (Men don’t usually bring up their own competence in the sciences.)

Which I can’t quite understand, because chemistry at secondary school was one of the easiest subjects for me. I found it a lot more straightforward than English, Modern Studies, Home Economics or Mathematics. That was because I immediately clicked onto the fact that Science Is Just Memorising. Trust me, it is. The teachers have their list of Learning Outcomes for their subject…they cover all the learning outcomes, usually in a step-wise progression through the standard textbook. All I did was print out the bullet-point list of Learning Outcomes for Biology, Chemistry & Physics (“1.1. Metallic bonding is a bond between metal atoms.”) and memorised the list during the exam period. Straight A-student. Obnoxiously swotty. Et cetera.

Fortunately (a) Chemistry at university requires a lot more than that (b) the learn-a-list approach to sciences did not dampen my passion for chemistry, thanks to the chemistry teacher who showed me in his monologues where knowledge of science could take you. But yeah, if you just relax and realise that science exams are nothing more than memorising a list…suddenly the sciences aren’t scary or difficult.

Thought 2. The British education system probably needs a massive overhaul in its approach to science. But in the meantime, surely a smarter teaching approach and a splash of tutoring would make more secondary school pupils continue with sciences? Somebody needs to show all those girls that Chemistry is in fact easier than Home Economics, and tell ’em that they are smart enough to be scientists.

Or maybe I’m missing out the most important bit. Getting into the position of a senior scientist doesn’t happen straight after graduation. To assume a position of supervisory/managerial responsibility in industry and academia you need a PhD. And a postdoc.

It doesn’t take much hanging around with postgraduate scientists (and if they tutor you and supervise your lab sessions you’ll have had enough exposure) to learn that PhDs are a bitch. You work rotten extended hours, your experiments have a habit of f*cking up precisely when you need them to work, in the top labs it can get competitive and hostile. You don’t have much (any) money, you don’t have a social life, if funding is cut (be it Department-wide or in your research group) you feel it. And I’ve not even mentioned the supervisors. Most benefits of a PhD come ten years down the line. Oh, and years. It takes 6-7 years to get beyond the postdoc, longer if you do your PhD in America.

OK, I don’t have any statistics on the matter. All I have in fact is a remark made by one of my work colleagues. One of the smarter and most trustworthy ones, which is why I’m referencing him. He noticed that the proportion of females – never high to begin with – dropped significantly when he moved from his PhD to his postdoc. It’s not just that women aren’t going into senior scientific positions, it’s that they are choosing not to qualify themselves for the senior scientific positions.

I’m wondering if the nature of postgraduate academic research puts women off more than men. If I want to be a senior STEM scientist then I need to sign over a decade to qualifying myself. A decade of being somebody’s lab rat for a shoddy salary and long hours that nobody will thank you for. A decade of being, well, a student. Could it be that women prioritise job stability and regular work hours more than men? Yes, at some point in my post-graduate life I’m going to say “Screw this, I want a real job. Treat me like an adult please, World.” Will I be more likely to say it before my male colleagues do?

Thought Number 3. I can see how mentoring & role models for female scientists would be useful not just in industry, but in the educational steps leading up to industry. For mentoring to work, it should be offered as soon as an undergraduate is thinking about a PhD/STEM career. The problem isn’t women dropping out of postgraduate study: it’s with choosing not to do it in the first place. 

I don’t claim to know the answers. But it’s giving me pause for thought…

Some Useful  Links:

Statistics from the UKRC, ways to get more women into STEM Careers, a RSC report on the retention of women during postgraduate study, the perspective of an actual female scientist, something for the Guardian Readers out there…

…and this is the worst argument for lack of women in STEM careers that I’ve ever read. Urgh.


2 thoughts on “Where are all the Chicks?

  1. I used to work in a USDA Research lab (I was just admin). My lab had the only female Research Leader in our Institute. She was not only a brilliant chemist, she was also a mother of FIVE. I think it gets drilled in to girls’ heads from a very young age (or at least it used to) that the science & math positions are for our male counterparts & that we’re more suited for clerical or teaching or home-maker positions. Thank God for the women who defy those ‘laws of physics & chemistry!’

  2. We certainly invite you to come discuss this with Erica on She Takes on the World! I think you offer some good insights and I can relate because as a woman with a tech company, I’m often the only female at the table. I now mentor a lot of women undergrads and overall, I think mentoring is one of the best solutions here. For the undergrads I mentor, the biggest issue in the beginning is usually a lack of confidence. Once we get over that hurdle, we accomplish a lot!

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