Women in Chemical Sciences – or Not

I recently attended a focus group workshop to discuss why women were under-represented in post-doctoral and academic positions in the chemical sciences. I would generally forgo such a workshop on the basis that I feel over-stressing the lack of females in certain roles undermines women by amplifying inefficacy. That is not to say that I think this information should be suppressed or that steps should not be taken to increase accessibility to these roles – but I do think that making a massive hoo haa about it is counter constructive.

But I did go to this workshop – why? Well, partly because the email was gauged in such terms as to make it sound compulsory(!), and partly because, knowing what I did, I felt that the key issue was not discrimination against women pursuing academic roles, but factors limiting access to post-doctoral positions that particularly influence women.

The number of female academics in the department is rising every year. The average age of female academics is lower too, which just shows that this is an old problem which is gradually fading away (maybe not fast enough, but fading all the same). And actually, the proportion of female post-docs is not very dissimilar to the proportion of female academics.


Whilst undergraduate years tend to be roughly 50:50 men:women, and doctoral researcher males only outnumber the females at about 2:1, at post-doctoral level the number of women in chemical sciences plummets. Why?

Because post-doctoral research is a path to but one career, is unstable, unreliable and low-paid.

  • To get an academic appointment, you first have to do ~2-3 post-doctoral positions, averaging about 2 years each.
  • Every time you take a post-doctoral position you may have to move to another university in another city and start on a whole new branch of research.
  • Most PhD graduates are ~26 years old.
  • The nature of research is competitive, so taking time out of your career e.g. to have a baby could seriously disable your academic progress or cut short a post-doctoral position.
  • Chemical research especially can be very dangerous: chemists and chemical engineers are regularly using heavy machinery, radiative equipment, and carcinogenic/mutagen materials.

As such, committing to a career in academia means the next 6 years of your life will be irregular; it makes it hard to commit to a partner, buy a house or have children, just at the age most young adults would be thinking about doing these things. Women especially, who feel more pressure to have children younger due to their health and fertility, are left with the choice between one or the other. Whilst maternity conditions for academics are reasonable, the short, irregular nature of post-doctoral positions means that having a family at this time could end up meaning forfeiting your position and disabling your entire career.

And it’s not that women are baby-obsessed and would prefer to settle down than support themselves, it’s that putting stable relationships, stable incomes, stable housing and the possibility of children aside for an uncertain period of time (that is unlikely to be less than 5 or 6 years) is a big commitment to your career. You have to be really passionate about research (and research in general, not just one topic, as you will probably be moving about from group to group as a post-doc, certainly if you want an academic position sooner). And, it turns out, most women are not passionate enough for that.

Nor are most men. In fact, the drop in numbers between postgraduate researchers and post-docs, or between post-doctoral researchers and academics, is BIG. And not just the numbers of positions, the numbers of applicants.

Basically, post-doccing is really, really unattractive. And we spent the workshop talking about what could be done to make it more stable and establish a work-life balance. It will be interesting to see the results of the study when they emerge!


About RowenaFW

I am a Fish. But you wouldn't know it just from looking at me.
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