Tuesday, October 18, 2005

National Chemistry Week: women in chemistry?

On Day 3 of National Chemistry Week 2005, I thought I'd poke gingerly at that perennial blogosphere question: where are the women?

In 2005, more of them are in chemistry departments than there were a decade or two ago. While some (who I won't link directly, because puh-leez!) would have you believe that women can't hack hard sciences like chemistry (and thus can't write hard SF), there are loads of women who manifestly can because they do. Some even have quantum lectures that have cracked the top 100 podcasts. (A woman chemist who blogs is a "where are the women" twofer, right?)

But if we want to talk numbers, we're not looking at anything close to parity. From the data the American Chemical Society has compiled, in 1989 women earned 38.7% of the U.S. bachelors degrees granted in chemistry and 25.7% of the Ph.D.s. (My entering class of more than 50 in the fall of 1989 was roughly a quarter female, which seems to jibe with these stats.) In 1999, women were up to 45.5% of the bachelors and 29.7% of the Ph.D.s. In other words, even though it feels to me like there are significantly more chicks with Ph.D.s in chemistry than when I was in school, it's not actually that big an increase. The ACS Women Chemists 2000 report that about 43% of the women with chemistry Ph.D.s work in academia, with proportionately more teaching at schools granting AAs, BSs and MSs than at schools that grant Ph.D.s or at medical schools. More male chemistry professors with tenure than female, but a closer to even male-to-female ratio among the younger professors (assistant and associate level) than the older.

It looks like things are improving. On the down side, the academic job market is relatively tight, and there's more of an expectation that one will line up a string of postdocs and/or visiting assistant professorships between graduate school and the first "real" academic appointment. This is hard on everyone, male or female. But if you want to do something crazy like have kids, it can make it much harder not to exit the pipeline. In chemistry, this isn't just a matter of temperament. There are a great many experimental systems with which one ought not to interact if one is trying to gestate a healthy human. It's one thing if you're doing computational chemistry, but if you're doing organometallic syntheses ... let's just say, you're not working up till your due date.

People have gone round and round about whether, from the point of view of the science produced, it really makes much difference if the proportion of female chemists is high or low. I think it's an empirical question. But, in the meantime, the proportion of woman can matter quite a lot in terms of how many females get into chemistry in the first place. (I don't just mean get into it as a field of study or career, but get into it as a way of thinking they enjoy and are good at.) Dealing with male professors who let you know that they don't expect females to be any good at the science they are teaching can put you off that science right quick -- not because you think they're right, but because it's tiring dealing with that bullsh*t on a regular basis. Studying chemistry can be tons of fun, but it's hard sometimes to consider joining the professoriate if there's no one in their ranks who looks like you. Seeing more chemistry professors, male and female, who are working out ways to balance research and teaching with "outside" commitments like family would be a good thing for the profession as a whole. These female chemists say a lot of useful things about how we should rethink our comic book ideals about what it means to be a good chemist. I don't agree with some of the sweeping generalizations (women being more cooperative and such -- it's not an essential trait, dude), but it does seem like there are many styles and skills that would build a healthier community of chemistry.

We're not there yet, but I think there's movement in the right direction.

Edited to add: The Chemical Heritage Foundation had a traveling exhibition about women's contributions to chemistry. It traveled to science fairs and such, to get the word out to impressionable young minds that women have always been among those able to hack chemistry.

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