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Turning the corner on gender diversity in chemistry

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
May 11, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 19


For nearly 20 years, C&EN has reported the representation of women among the faculties of research-active chemistry departments in the US. Since 2009, the data have been collected through a survey conducted by the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE), a project aimed at reducing “inequitable policies and practices that have historically led to disproportionate representation on academic faculties with respect to gender, race-ethnicity, disabilities, and sexual orientation.”

The gender scorecard targets the 50 chemistry departments that, according to the National Science Foundation, spend the most on chemistry research. While this ranking may look arbitrary, it reflects the departments that have the largest financial footprint and train a large number of students as chemistry PhDs. As we strive for inclusive excellence, faculty and students need to be diverse at levels commensurate with the population. Unfortunately, they are not. Faculty in particular are lagging behind.

The latest ranking, on page 18, reports that 20% of faculty in these chemistry departments are women. That’s less than half the percentage of women graduating with PhDs in chemistry today.

Through National Diversity Equity Workshops (NDEWs)—held every 2 years since 2011—OXIDE has engaged chemistry department chairs around the country to identify the barriers that have hindered the success of women and underrepresented minorities in the tenure track and, importantly, to define strategies for suppressing or removing these barriers. Chief among these strategies have been recommended actions for departments to improve their diversity climates, including creating diversity committees, which many departments have adopted. OXIDE has also emphasized fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion paralleling the community efforts to create a safety culture. That is, diversity and inclusion have to be integrated into everything a department does. OXIDE’s list of actions is quite extensive and applicable to any chemistry department, not just the top 50. Bill Tolman, the 2017 OXIDE Diversity Catalyst Lecturer and former chair of chemistry at the University of Minnesota, reported that after he attended his first NDEW, he used the recommended actions as a to-do list and proceeded to check off each item. In his own assessment, the outcome was a healthier climate in Minnesota’s Chemistry Department and a modest improvement in its demographics.

NDEWs provide a way for chairs and champions of chemistry departments to learn from each other and from social scientists about how to advance a climate of diversity. So far, 39 of the top 50 chemistry departments have had representation in at least one of the first four workshops.

According to OXIDE data from 2016–17, the average percentage of female professors in those departments (20%) is larger than the percentage of women in the departments that did not attend any NDEW (17%). Even more significant is the large deviation for the percentage of assistant professors for departments who were represented (29%) and those who weren’t (12%). Participation in an event such as the NDEWs may correlate with increased gender diversity in a department. As this is an activity that few other disciplines are doing, there is reason to be optimistic about chemistry. We are making a difference in the representation of women by actively engaging to correct the problem.

Meanwhile, the US National Academy of Sciences just announced its latest class, and the percentage of women in the group that was inducted was 40%, the most ever elected. And the recipients of the 2019 ACS National Awards included more women than ever before.

Chemistry is clearly turning a corner. The glass ceiling may not be entirely broken yet, but we are making progress.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


This editorial was updated on May 13, 2019, to include additional data.


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