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A chemical imbalance


aciProfessor Polly Arnold launches her “call to arms” for more women in STEM subjects.

According to the BBC, just one-third of the UK’s science undergraduates are female – and only 9 per cent of professors.

And with inequality in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) costing the UK £2 billion, and with equality 70 years away at current rates of growth, Professor Polly Arnold, the Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry at Edinburgh University, thinks not enough is being done for women.

Her solution is the use of four actions she formulated as part of a project called A Chemical Imbalance.

If all institutions, businesses and professionals put them into use, ‘they won’t solve everything, but they’re a start’, she says.

And these four points?

Monitor our numbers; mentor our people and make sure the best are applying; create a workplace that supports everyone and allows flexibility and reclaim the meaning of feminism.

As winner of the 2012 Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award, Professor Arnold was required to spend part of the prize – a £30,000 grant – on a project to raise the profile of women in STEM.

Her ensuing project, A Chemical Imbalance, has a film, a book and a website that uses the long history of successful women scientists at Edinburgh University as inspiration for finding ways to help more women rise to and through the ranks of senior positions in STEM.

Edinburgh University has a long history of leadership in supporting women in STEM, starting with teaching the first seven women to attend university in the UK.

And the university’s vice principal, for example, Professor Lesley Yellowlees, was previously the university’s first female head of chemistry.

But even in 2012, when Professor Yellowlees became the first female president in its 172-year history of the Royal Society of Chemistry she was told at her awards ceremony by a member of the audience that it was a disgrace to have her as president of the Society, “Because,” she said,  “as a female I should be at home bringing up my children.”

The real disgrace, of course, other than the persistence of such sexist views, is that with women making up nearly half of all undergraduates and 33 per cent of STEM undergraduates, this figure that only nine per cent of STEM professors are women.

Previous research by the Royal Society of Edinburgh found that ‘increasing women’s participation in the UK labour market could be worth as much as £23 billion, with STEM accounting for at least £2 billion of that amount’.

Much has been written about bias in STEM fields, with a 2012 study by Yale University uncovering an unambiguous bias against female scientists from managers of both genders.

While the slow pace of progress is frustrating, Professor Arnold points to continued improvements, including the growing numbers of institutions, such as Athena SWAN, a charter for women in science; government bodies that are studying discrimination in STEM and the increased numbers and strength of advocacy groups, such as Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (WiSE).

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