Skip to content

Diversity challenges in the chemical sciences

05 Mar 2018

Philippa Matthews, Inclusion and Diversity Programme Officer at the Royal Society of Chemistry, sheds light on the gender gap in chemistry.

Lack of diversity is one of the biggest challenges facing STEM.

At the Royal Society of Chemistry, we are renewing our commitment to make the chemical sciences more inclusive, to encourage diversity of people and ideas. There are demonstrable benefits to having a wide range of viewpoints and experiences, whether in academia or industry, and there’s a moral responsibility for us to make our community a place where anyone can reach their full potential. We are concerned with all areas of diversity, and work on a wide range of projects to make sure chemistry is for everyone. In February, we published the ‘Diversity landscape of the chemical sciences, a report exploring a snapshot of the available diversity data about our community. This data gathering has given us a picture that allows us to identify areas of the most need, set intelligent targets for our future activities, and benchmark our future progress from a defined starting point.

From the data we collected, retention of women emerged as the biggest single loss of talent from our community. At each stage of progression, women are leaving the sector, a massive loss of talent and economic potential. In chemistry, at undergraduate level, 44% of students are female. This drops to 39% of postgraduate students, and plummets to a mere 9% among chemistry professors.

This is not new. The lack of women in senior positions has been identified as an issue time and time again, not least in our own diversity reports. However, surprisingly little progress has been made. Over the last 10 years the number of women in chemistry professorships has tripled – from 15 to 45. We need to do better.

This loss of talent is particularly stark when compared to the other sciences. Physics has a much lower intake of women at undergraduate level, at roughly 20%, but women are far more effectively retained to senior levels, with 10% of professorships held by women.

Academia is only one part of the story. To investigate the picture in industry we collect information on employment and salary of our members in our biennial ‘Pay and reward’ survey. From this dataset, we can see the differences in career path between men and women. Only 23% of women were in positions of high responsibility, compared to 40% of men.

There’s also a difference in remuneration. The difference in median pay between men and women is £13,000, an increase since 2015. The pay gap increases over the course of women’s careers, with older respondents reporting a greater gap than those at the beginning of their careers.

Different genders encounter different experiences of the workplace. Women were less likely to feel their pay was fair and that their role made full use of their skills, and were more likely to under-estimate their skills and competency compared to men.

As part of our new diversity strategy, we are taking a number of steps to positively influence the retention of women and ensure that they can achieve their full potential in the chemical sciences:

  • Researching the ‘leaky pipeline’

We are exploring the challenges faced by women at the key transition points in their careers, through a series of interviews, focus groups and a survey of our community, and those who have chosen to pursue a career outside of the chemical sciences. We will publish the results of this study in autumn 2018.

  • Supporting returners

We work with the Daphne Jackson Trust to support fellowships for a number of returners to chemistry research. The trust offers research placements and training to ease the transition back into research after a career break.

  • Advocating for inclusive leadership

We are working with the EPSRC and IOP to promote inclusive leadership in the physical sciences, by investigating the current routes to developing leadership skills and characteristics, as well as the barriers to doing so.

  • Investigating our publishing data

We are analysing our publishing data for gender trends in commissioning, submission, editorial and refereeing decisions and citations.

  • Reviewing appointment practices

We are reviewing how we appoint to our boards and committees to ensure our processes are equitable and governance is diverse. Culture change is never quick, but we hope that these initiatives will make a stepchange towards a more inclusive and productive chemical sciences community. A more diverse representation at higher levels should in turn encourage social change in the long-term.

To find out more read our report, ‘Diversity landscape of the chemical sciences.

Related articles

Why Does the UK Need an Ageing Workforce Strategy?
24 January 2023

The Physiological Society’s policy team on the health challenges facing older workers and the urgent need to develop a strategy to ensure older people are happy and healthy at work.

Let’s Support Deep Tech Innovators
30 March 2022

Jo Reynolds, Director of Science and Communities at the Royal Society of Chemistry, on the RSC’s new summary report looking to unlock the potential of deep tech SMEs.

Essential skills for tomorrow’s workforce
22 March 2022

Lisa Morrison Coulthard, Research Director at the National Foundation for Education Research, on the Nuffield Foundation funded five year research programme providing insights into the essential employment skills needed for the future workforce

Future options for international collaboration
12 November 2019

Sir Adrian Smith, Institute Director and Chief Executive of The Alan Turing Institute, and Graeme Reid, Professor of Science and Research Policy at UCL, set out the findings from their new independent report on international partnership opportunities for UK research and innovation