Corporate Responsibility

Women in science – how ‘fortunate’ do you feel?

By Editorial Team, Chemicals Knowledge Hub

A recent survey of nearly 1000 chemical engineers highlighted that, while the vast majority are happy with their jobs, women in th

A recent survey of nearly 1000 chemical engineers highlighted that, while the vast majority are happy with their jobs, women in the workforce are under-promoted, underpaid and under-recognised. We try to discover what it really means to be a woman working in our industry in the 21st century.
A recent annual survey1 of the chemicals industry provided promising results regarding job satisfaction among chemical engineers. “I’m happy” – a simple statement attributed to one of the survey’s 926 respondents – was interpreted as representative of the sector, as nearly 90% said they were satisfied or mostly satisfied with their jobs, and 91% said they felt fulfilled.
This is great news for chemical engineers and, as I read the survey report, I felt a warm glow of satisfaction encompass me at the progress being made in this sector and the appreciation being shown for experts in our industry. At least, until I reached the page about Women in the Workforce.
The plight of women was highlighted with – frankly, depressing – quotes such as “If you are female, it’s going to be harder to advance up the ladder. You will have to work much harder to get half the recognition. You must really love what you are doing, or it will not be worth the effort.”
It is a well-known fact that women in science were rarely acknowledged or credited for their work before the 1970s. Much of what we hear or read suggests that in the 21st century this situation has changed. Yet here and now, at the end of 2019, I was reading, “Female engineers are a rare breed. In the industrial field not only do they often make less than their male colleagues, they often rarely receive any recognition.”
Under-promoted, under-paid and under-recognised… this was uncomfortable reading.I had to remind myself that much progress has been made over the past 50 years. We are frequently surrounded by inspirational women who have shattered the glass ceiling and don’t let gender bias stand in their way. But do the stories about these wonderful, successful women lull us into a false sense that we are winning the good fight? This new survey1 certainly suggests that we still need to make a lot more progress before gender equality (and probably other types of equality) is achieved.

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I turned to two women who work in the chemicals industry to obtain some honest insights about what it means to be working in our industry in the 21st century.
Have you ever felt that being a woman has affected your career progression, for better or worse?

Jenny Wallis: Not directly, but in this industry it is not uncommon to be the only woman sitting around a table as part of a key-decision making meeting, where it is easy to be overlooked. Subconsciously (or consciously) I think some people would still always presume to address a male colleague – especially in the field of process chemistry. There have been times where I have told people that I am a chemist by background and I have received replies such as “You don’t look like a chemist”. I think as long as you’re making yourself heard and you surround yourself with positive female mentors – which I have had the privilege of having – then it shouldn’t affect your career progression.

Lois Chandler: I can most certainly say that my career progression has never benefited from being a woman! However, I have been very fortunate in that I have not directly experienced adverse effects on my career progression because of being a woman. During the course of my graduate education and subsequent training and employment, there have been times where it seemed that I had to work harder to get recognition afforded to male counterparts, and on occasion male counterparts were given credit for something I did. However frustrating that may have been, there is no instance where my career progression was actually held back.

Although I have been spared, I have witnessed brilliant, talented women being passed over for promotion, tenure or equitable salary, while men of lesser or equal accomplishments advanced. To these women, I would say first and foremost how much I admire them for their perseverance, and in most cases, their successes and contributions to science despite the obstacles faced. Several women I know have had to uproot their families to find equitable working environments, but the fact that they have done so and succeeded is confirmation of their talents and dedication to science.
What is your own ultimate career ambition?
Wallis: I love my job and the industry that I am in, so my aim is to gain a managerial position where I can help the next generation to continue to provide the public with novel therapeutics!
Chandler: I have been working in biotech for 27 years, and would now consider myself in the ‘sunset’ of my career. I have been very fortunate to have met my main ambition, which was to take a product from the bench to the bedside. I have done this with Excellagen, having been part of the research team that invented the product, and now as part of the team at Olaregen Therapeutix, which has brought Excellagen to market. I don’t have a specific milestone defined that must be reached prior to retiring. For now and the foreseeable future, I continue to relish the intellectual stimulation of my career and the opportunity to witness the fruits of my labours in the real world.
Do you have any concerns about balancing your work and personal life?
Chandler: Ah, balance…. That has always been an issue for me. There have been many times in the past where I put work before family and friends, and now regret those decisions and the opportunities lost. More often than not, there would have been no impact on the progress of a project had I been a bit more balanced. Unfortunately, in science – and probably many other businesses – almost anything can be construed as being urgent and requiring immediate attention, and in my experience the work culture can foster significant guilt (something I have been made to feel often). I certainly want to promote dedication to one’s work and would never sabotage a project or my colleagues, but after decades, I am learning to question myself and my decisions during the decision-making process, as opposed to afterwards when it is too late.
Wallis: This is definitely something that I’ve thought about. In the past, I’ve heard stories about women almost having to choose between a career or a family if they want to succeed at work. Taking ‘time off’ at an essential time in their careers to start a family could damage their professional development. Or even worse, people presume that women of a certain age will want to start a family – which can stop them from getting promotions or new jobs. Fortunately, I think this is starting to change now. The introduction of shared parental leave is making it easier for women to get back to work.
How can we ensure that equality in the workplace continues to progress?
Chandler: It is actually heart-breaking to me that this is a topic that must still be discussed. I guess one thing is that composition of decision-making panels, be it performance reviews, salary reviews, hiring considerations, etc., must be heterogenous and reflect the composition of the workplace. You can’t eliminate all subjectivity, but objectivity is key.
Wallis: I have recently been to a Women in Leadership conference and the one thing that clearly sticks in my mind is: “We have to get out of our own way”. A lot of women still don’t think they’re good enough for promotions or jobs out of their comfort zone – but we’ll never know unless we go for it!

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I think it is striking that these women consider themselves to be ‘fortunate’ because they have not encountered significant gender barriers in their careers, although they have both come up against some dismissive or discouraging influences – as a direct result of being women. Clearly, both have succeeded where less determined women might have failed.
This echoes claims made elsewhere that women need to be “twice as good” and do “twice as much” as their male counterparts to succeed. It also demonstrates the passion and commitment that women have to their careers. To pass these people over is not just a matter of social irresponsibility – it is poor business sense.
As Chandler commented, it is heart-breaking that this topic must still be discussed. But all the evidence would appear to point to the fact that we must keep discussing, and we must keep taking action, to ensure that equality in the workplace is eventually achieved.