Celebrating diversity in chemistry

Posted on 16 November 2017

Diversity in the chemical sciences was celebrated at a flagship event, hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, in collaboration with Athena SWAN Gold Award chemistry departments from the University of York and Imperial College, London.

Professor Sir John Holman opens the event to celebrate diversity in the chemical sciences

The event, which was held at Burlington House in London, was timed to coincide with the 150th birthday of pioneering female scientist Marie Curie and linked with 10 years of York's Department of Chemistry holding an Athena SWAN Gold Award. Head of Department Professor Duncan Bruce and Dr Caroline Dessent, from York, along with Professor Sue Gibson of Imperial College, London, were co-organisers of the event.

Combining two top-class speakers and a panel discussion, the thought-provoking evening highlighted the progress made in addressing inclusion and diversity, and reflected on the challenges ahead. It was introduced by Professor Sir John Holman, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Chemistry at York, and current President of The Royal Society of Chemistry.

Keynote speaker Professor Sarah Harper, Director of the Royal Institution, provided a fascinating reflection on the way demographic change intersects with the role of women in the workplace, and highlighted how trends associated with an ageing population have been hugely influential on women's careers and will become even more so in the coming years. She focussed on the 'leaky pipeline' of women in professional jobs and the demographic trends that underpin it, including the ongoing adverse impact of child-bearing on women's careers in science. Professor Harper also spoke about the inspirational importance of female role models in her own career. 

Professor Dame Julia Higgins, current President of the Institute of Physics, went on to talk in more detail about some of the initiatives which actively address career progress of women in science, and particularly those who have taken career breaks, with the importance of role models and mentors emerging as a key theme. Dame Julia also shared a little-known story about how Marie Curie, further to her Nobel Prize winning work, developed mobile X-ray machines and took them out to the front lines in World War One to help diagnose soldiers' injuries.

As one of the panel members, Professor David Smith talked about his experiences in the Department of Chemistry at York. In particular, he reflected on the way in which the diversity-aware atmosphere in the department had helped him to come out as a gay academic and supported his work in raising international awareness of this 'hidden' LGBT+ diversity issue. Further, he explained that departmental policies developed in response to Athena SWAN, such as flexible working and the part-time working assurance, helped him greatly, both when his husband was seriously ill and when he wanted a period of part-time working after the adoption of their son.

Other panel members reflected on a variety of issues, from diversity in the Research Councils and industry, to the role of the Equality Challenge Unit in pushing for change. An emerging theme was ongoing under-representation based on social background and the need for scientists to consider whether they can expect society to care about them if they don’t care about society.

Reflecting on the evening, Dr Dessent, Chair of the Departmental Equality and Diversity Group and co-organiser of the event, said: "This flagship event was a really valuable reminder of the considerable impact that our work promoting equality and diversity can make to the careers of some scientists. The event has stimulated a lot of new ideas, and reinforced a commitment from our community to developing chemistry as a beacon area for diversity and inclusion in STEM."