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Women's Issues in Chemistry

November 12, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 46

The Sept. 17 issue of C&EN highlights some very accomplished women in chemistry (pages 13 and 26), while Rudy Baum's insightful editorial talks about the special challenges of women in academia (page 3). As part of an ACS PROGRESS project funded by the National Science Foundation's ADVANCE program, group members have visited chemistry departments at 35 highly ranked Ph.D.-granting universities, where we interviewed administrators, faculty, postdocs, and graduate students.

All too often, especially in departments with just a few women faculty members, we have found that talented women faculty members feel isolated, undervalued, and marginalized. But in other departments, thanks to conscious efforts on the part of administrations and department leaders, women thrive and succeed. In these departments, we find that men and women report better advising, better support, and a better climate for success overall.

Those departments that fail their women fail themselves and the discipline of chemistry. Reports of our findings are being prepared for publication.

Sally Chapman
New York City

I always enjoy reading Baum's editorials, but as a woman biochemist, it was with great interest that I read his column entitled "Women Chemists." It was such an affirmation to see in print the conclusions that I have reached during my own career deliberations! There is much discussion in the pages of C&EN about the mysterious drop in percentages of women on faculty and in top industry positions; this drop does not seem so mysterious to me.

In my case, the perceived demands of the "academic lifestyle" were the determining factor in my decision to not avidly pursue an academic career. If both spouses in the family were trying to juggle grant deadlines, conference travel, scientific visitors, and all the other myriad faculty responsibilities, I simply couldn't imagine how we could have the sort of home life we desired for ourselves and children.

I am grateful to live in an era when I do have choices regarding career and family. I am also aware that many women are quite successful at nurturing both their young careers and their young children; some women do "have it all." But I also know there are many well-qualified and well-educated women chemists who make the difficult decision to step off the academic path because they seek a balance between career and family.

Must the choice to step out of academia for a period of time be an all-or-nothing decision? Maybe discussions such as those found in C&EN can lead to greater acceptance of women back into the academic scientific community after a hiatus to raise young children. Family-friendly policies like on-site daycare and pausing the tenure clock may eventually help plug the so-called leaky pipeline.

Another option that I have pursued is the idea of working part-time to stay in touch with the research community. In my experience, this idea puzzles those immersed in the 24/7 research climate, but I think it might be part of the solution to retaining women chemists in academia. Perhaps in time there will be less stigma associated with such alternative career moves. The chemistry community stands to gain much if it can more effectively support both women and men during their child-rearing days. It is a cruel irony that pivotal times in our careers often coincide with pivotal times in our children's development.

Thanks for keeping this topic in the public forum. Although the consequences of the choices women chemists make are not easy to tease out, I believe they are significant for the chemistry community and our society in general.

Leslie E. W. LaConte


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