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Women in Chemistry: Progress Made, but Obstacles Remain

The world is in the midst of the International Year of Chemistry 2011 (IYC 2011), a global "celebration of the achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humankind." An initiative of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the year-long celebration involves chemical societies, academies and institutions worldwide and is aimed at promoting international scientific collaboration. In support of IYC 2011, close to 100 countries registered more than 600 events and 1,200 activities.


The year also is focusing on the contributions of women to chemistry as it coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Madame Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Curie also shared a Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and scientist Henri Becquerel.

Gains and challenges experienced by several SLAS members and their colleagues are representative of how women have moved up the career ladder in chemistry over the years. "In pursuit of female chemists," a commentary published in the August 18 issue of the journal Nature—as well as feedback from SLAS members—suggests that while some progress has been made, there is still much work to be done.

In the Nature commentary, Carol Robinson of the University of Oxford, U.K., notes, "The decline from chemistry Ph.D.s (46% women) to professorships (just 6%) is steeper than in other disciplines, including physics and engineering." Equally disappointing, a recent survey concluded that "one-quarter of all 14-years-olds in the United Kingdom confuse Marie Curie with pop singer Mariah Carey." Robinson suggests a need for new role models for today's women, noting that "chemistry… has a macho culture in which getting to the finish line first is more important than how you get there." In addition, she states, "Too often, female scientists shy away from responsible roles or don't have sufficient confidence or aspirations."

Some of the same themes—pressure on women to excel, different leadership styles and the need to bring more women into the discipline—were also cited by SLAS members before the Nature commentary's publication. These members had much to say about some of the key issues facing women in chemistry today. They also suggested solutions.


"Evolution, not revolution."

—Sue Holland-Crimmin, Ph.D., Site Director, Sample Management Technology, GSK and member of the SLAS BSS Executive Council

When Sue Holland-Crimmin started her career in the pharmaceutical industry in the mid-1980s, women with Ph.D.s "were few and far between," she recalls. At her first job, during recruitment fairs at universities, "management rolled me out to talk to new graduates about the opportunities for women entering the industry."

Yet at the same time, "when I entered our conference room for a meeting, I was the only female in a room of 15 or 20 people," Holland-Crimmin says. "That situation could be very daunting. You had to be confident about your position and ability, and not let yourself be intimidated by everyone around you." On the positive side, with relatively few females in the room, "when we did say something, it carried weight."

As more women entered the industry and moved into senior positions, culture changes within organizations took some of the performance pressure off women. In the process, the "macho-type" leadership style began to topple. "There's now a consensus that it's okay to admit you don't know everything, and that change came directly from having women in the picture," Holland-Crimmin says. "There's also a growing recognition that we don't need the traditional stereotype—a domineering person who is always talking or expressing a strong viewpoint—at the helm."

That said, the transition has been "more of an evolution than a revolution," she acknowledges. "We still have women leaders who adopted that old male style….and honestly, we all probably have a little bit of that in us. When I first came into the industry, there was a natural tendency to emulate some of those male behaviors because those were the behaviors leaders exhibited. Now that there's more of an acceptance of different leadership styles, I think we should continue on that journey."

Holland-Crimmin advises women entering the field who want to move up to "find coaches and mentors in different parts of your company and develop a network of contacts." To grow professionally, "look for people you admire, female or male, who have styles that are different from your natural style and work with them to understand how their styles work for them as leaders. That will expand your knowledge and your options."

Also critical is "believing in yourself and your ability to succeed," she emphasizes. "I was fortunate growing up in a working class family in the north of England. I had two brothers, and our parents treated us all equally, which was rare at that time. They instilled in me a very strong ‘can-do' attitude, which is important for women in our industry. There are more opportunities now than ever before, and having the courage of your convictions and the belief that you can make a difference will go a long way toward helping you achieve your goals and objectives."


"Now companies are more open to diversity…which is a real change."

—Karen Lackey, Vice President and Head of Medicinal Chemistry, Discovery Chemistry, Research Therapeutic Modalities, Roche

Karen Lackey reached similar conclusions to Holland-Crimmin, but via a somewhat different route. In college during the early ‘80s, there were only a couple of other women in her chemistry classes. And when she got her first job in the plastics industry, "I was the token woman in a company of 110 people," Lackey recalls. "I went into chemistry for the pure science part of it, but when I started in plastics I found that the work lacked meaning. So I switched to the pharmaceutical world, where I could use chemistry to create things that would benefit society."

While there were more females in her first pharma position than in plastics, "it certainly was still male-dominated, complete with pin-up calendars and other things women today would never dream were true," says Lackey. "I don't remember that bothering me at the time. I just accepted it, and thought as long as I could do my work, that was all that mattered."

But the environment did take a toll, she acknowledges. "I never expected to be promoted—that just wasn't in my mind. My expectations in that respect were very, very low. My daily happiness consisted of going in and doing the chemistry, and that was all I expected from a job." One measure of the change that has taken place, she observes, is that women who apply for jobs now "have much higher expectations—location, benefits, career path—than when I graduated. So, I really do think the world is different now."

The other change, as Holland-Crimmin noted, has been in leadership styles. Early in her career, Lackey says, "I noticed there were a certain set of rules for what it took to be successful. You had to act a certain way. You had to have a swagger, a demeanor of confidence, but not necessarily a knowledge base," she explains. "First with acetates, then with PowerPoint, you had to present your information in a specific way. And I remember constantly saying, ‘Who made those rules? Why does it have to be done like that? It doesn't make sense to me.'

"My position was, and still is, that if you're in science, you need to take a more creative, holistic approach." Lackey continues. "You also have to be a master at your craft—to know what you're doing. And my observations were that a lot of the leaders, or managers, didn't necessarily know what they were doing, but they behaved as though they did. This wasn't acceptable to me. For my own career, being authentic and being genuine mattered more than knowing the rules for how you get promoted."

It's turned out that the culture at many large pharmas has transformed in recent years, and the current emphasis "is less about who's the manager and more about capabilities and teamwork, with everyone being a valued member of the team," Lackey observes. "Now companies are more open to diversity across the board—women, men, ethnicities, different approaches—which is a real change that's occurred over the lifetime of my career."

Were there forces that helped move this transition along? "Absolutely—the law," Lackey states. "The laws against sexual harassment, against having pin-ups, against behaviors in the workplace that no woman entering the field in the last five-to-10 years would ever have experienced. And though I don't remember these things bothering me much at the time, the environment is much more conducive to teamwork now that they don't exist."


"We need organizations that support women in science."

—Robyn Rourick, Senior Manager, Study Operations, Genentech, and member of the SLAS LAS Executive Council

Robyn Rourick first became aware of gender differences as an undergraduate studying chemistry in the early ‘80s. "I was one of only two females in the program, and we both felt the scientific faculty didn't think we had the caliber to move ahead," she recalls. "They did what they had to do from the standpoint of teaching us in class, but we didn't feel the support our fellow students were getting outside of class in terms of context for the future—what the career opportunities might be like for us in industry or academia. They really were focused on helping to develop the men." The situation was compounded by the fact that although Rourick had female professors in biology, there were none in chemistry.

Ironically, Rourick's first industry experience—an undergraduate internship at a large cosmetics company—turned out to be more supportive to women than her academic experience. "I had a totally different perspective in this situation, which embraced both women and men in terms of development."

After graduation, Rourick pursued a master's in forensic sciences, which she found to be gender-neutral despite a predominance of male instructors. After a brief stint in the forensics department of a state government, she joined a large pharmaceutical company. At that company, "from the standpoint of advancement, being a female without a Ph.D. made it much more difficult. I had to go in front of different boards to justify a promotion and my package always had to be much thicker than anyone else's."

In the late ‘90s, Rourick left big pharma to start a technology group at a biotech based in San Diego. Shortly after she joined the firm, another company acquired it and, ultimately, after four years of transitions, by the same large pharma she had left. "During that time, I started to become aware of some of the external resources that were available to support women. I joined an organization called Athena, and became very active in one of their FEW [Forum for Executive Women] groups." Rourick went on to join other groups supportive of women in science, including an internal group at her current company called GWP (Genentech Women Professionals). In these groups, "we talk about our successes and challenges, do problem-solving, and host speakers and roundtable discussions," she says.

"I look back at my early years in a large pharmaceutical company where we did not have any similar groups," Rourick observes. "That is definitely changing now." In line with her commitment to these groups, Rourick is proposing the launch of an SLAS SIG (special interest group) for women in science. Women and men who are interested in joining are encouraged to contact Robyn directly at


"It's the ‘lazy' force: people just aren't interested in working hard and doing fundamental science."

—Sabeth Verpoorte, Ph.D., Chair of Analytical Chemistry & Pharmaceutical Analysis, Department of Pharmacy, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Growing up in Canada, SLAS member Sabeth Verpoorte learned early on that girls interested in science often were considered strange. "When I hit puberty, it seemed to me that all of a sudden, my female friends became dumb. But I wasn't allowed to come home with bad marks in anything, so I carried on. And from that experience I've always felt that there's a more fundamental issue with respect to women in science, and that is the way we socialize our children," she explains.

"The wave of feminism in the '60s and '70s, which I'm supposed to be benefiting from, hasn't really made a difference with respect to science and mathematics. We still have huge differences in the numbers of boys and girls in the hard-core sciences, physics, math and engineering," Verpoorte continues. As an undergraduate, she was one of three young women in a class of 15. In graduate school, she was the only woman in the group working toward a Ph.D.

After graduate school, Verpoorte moved to The Netherlands. Working in academia there, she has identified a force she says may have an even greater influence than gender differences on the low numbers of students in chemistry and other scientific disciplines. "For lack of a better word, I call it the ‘lazy' force," she says. "Students have become lazy. They want instant gratification. They're not interested in working hard and doing fundamental science. Here in The Netherlands, we don't have to talk about the low numbers of women in chemistry, physics and math. We talk about the low number of students."

Verpoorte is hearing similar stories from colleagues in Spain, Italy, Sweden, the United States and Canada. And, as noted earlier, Robinson documented the same trend in the U.K. in her Nature commentary.

Universities in The Netherlands are trying various strategies to draw more students into these disciplines. One is changing the names of courses by removing the word "chemistry." Says Verpoorte, "I teach analytical chemistry to first and second year pharmacy students, and most of them don't like it very much. So I ended up changing the name of my course from ‘analytical chemistry' to ‘pharmaceutical analysis.' My colleagues who teach organic chemistry have changed the name to ‘molecules and reactivity.'

"Chemists here are trying to redefine themselves in all sorts of ways, calling themselves chemical biologists, trying to introduce more biological elements into the chemistry programs," Verpoorte continues. "That makes sense on the one hand because our world is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and there has to be a shift in the boundaries between disciplines. But introducing a biological slant also helps a course's image. That could help draw women in, because we tend to find more women in the biological sciences than in the hard-core sciences."

Universities also have created special programs aimed at attracting women to fill open professorship positions in the sciences. However, "it's really hard to find good candidates," Verpoorte says. "In the past, women would not have been offered these positions. That's changed, but now most women aren't interested."

Nor has the strategy suggested by Nature commentary author Robinson and implemented by women in the U.S.—mentoring and serving as role models—been effective, Verpoorte adds. "I used to think that female role models would help a lot, and in fact, when I was hired at the university eight years ago, I was asked during my interview how I felt about being a role model for female students. My response at that point was that I was very sorry gender was still an issue. But as it's turned out, I rarely get female students doing research projects with me. So the idea of having me here as a role model doesn't make a difference." Verpoorte's female colleagues in physics report the same situation.

"In the end, given the strong societal influences we're up against, I think we can best act on an individual basis," Verpoorte continues. "If you see you've got a young woman who's interested in what you're doing, really pay attention to that person and help her maintain that interest. Actually, I do that with students of both genders, because these days it's unusual enough to find someone interested. And when I think back, there were certain teachers and professors whom I particularly respected and who stimulated me and who are, therefore, at least partially responsible for what I'm doing now. That one-to-one interaction is still incredibly important today," she concludes.

September 27, 2011