University of Edinburgh electrochemist Lesley Yellowlees this month becomes the first female president in the 171-year history of the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).
Yellowlees will use her milestone tenure to raise awareness about “gender and improving diversity in science in general,” she tells C&EN. “Let me put it this way,” she says. “I want to be a champion of anyone who wants to pursue a career in science, particularly chemistry.”
The U.K., Yellowlees says, is about 50 years behind the U.S. in addressing issues of equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, known as STEM.
To explain her estimate, Yellowlees points to the fact that the U.S.’s Association for Women in Science was founded in 1971 and has an established and thriving presence in the country. In contrast, the U.K. established an equivalent association only in 2004, called Women in Science (WISE). The organization has not had steady funding since its inception, she says, and the lack of support has interfered with its profile and programs.
For example, WISE had been receiving £2.5 million ($3.9 million) in annual funding from the U.K. government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills until this year, when “its budget was reduced to nothing,” Yellowlees says.
She also points to the fact that 25% of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ new members in 2012 were women, compared with 4% (just two of 44) for the U.K.’s Royal Society.
The U.K. has a “leaky pipeline,” Yellowlees says. “We start off with a 50-50 gender split at the undergraduate level but end up with only 6% women at the professorial level. We can’t afford to lose those people.” (According to figures tabulated by C&EN, women currently hold 17% of chemistry-related academic positions at the top 50 research universities in the U.S.)
Aside from the statistics, Yellowlees says diversity in STEM has a higher profile in the U.S. than in the U.K. The White House has hosted two events on the issue in the past year, she says, including a panel discussion on women in STEM featuring National Aeronautics & Space Administration chemist Tracy Dyson. Last September, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a press conference where she said, “If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone. ... We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”
“Frankly, I’m a bit envious,” Yellowlees says. “Nothing that high profile has happened here.” Yellowlees is quick to add that she realizes that the U.S. is not a utopia for women in the sciences, particularly regarding maternity, child care, and subsequent reentry into the workforce—that’s where Scandinavia is a leading example, she says. But at least the U.S. has a mobilized voice and high-profile supporters of that voice, she explains.
So what does Yellowlees aim to do during her two-year tenure?
“Well, I’m not an advocate of positive discrimination,” she says. “I want women to feel like they achieved what they’ve achieved on their own merit.” She thinks it’s more fruitful to create programs and modify policies so that they positively encourage women, as well as to educate people to be aware of their own predispositions. “When people sit on a search committee, they often choose someone in their own image,” she says. “I’d like to encourage people to be aware of” that tendency and to consider other deserving candidates.
Yellowlees wants to promote projects such as the U.K.’s Athena Swan Charter. Created in 2005 through government and learned society collaborations, scientific institutions can put the charter in place to improve support and enable women as they face challenges in the workplace, especially balancing life and career. “I’d like to encourage universities across the U.K. to be thinking along the lines of this charter,” she says.
“I would also like to see how we can support women who are returning to the workplace,” Yellowlees adds. She gives kudos to the Daphne Jackson Trust, a U.K. charity that provides scientists and engineers with fellowships to help them return to the workforce after having children.
It’s a hurdle she herself has struggled with. “I’m married with two children. Getting that work-life balance can be a challenge. We all know having a successful career takes long hours and a lot of travel.” In addition, Yellowlees has held a variety of administrative posts. She is now a vice principal at the University of Edinburgh and dean of the institution’s College of Science & Engineering.
As for her own career path, “You hear some horror stories, but I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of positive encouragement from my mentors throughout my career” and education, which has primarily taken place at the University of Edinburgh, Yellowlees says. “For example, I just got a nice letter from my undergraduate research project adviser, who mentored me in 1975. He told me getting the RSC presidency ‘is a fine tribute to your underlying ability.’ It’s that kind of support that makes all the difference and which I’d like to encourage.”