Women in Chemistry
Women in Chemistry


“There is no good time for any woman who is a professional chemist to have a child,” says Professor Richard N. Zare, chair of the Stanford University chemistry department, in a recent Chemical and Engineering News article.

Jennifer Schefiliti, a sixth year graduate student in the MIT chemistry department and former chair of the Graduate Women in Chemistry group, agrees. “I want to be actively involved in my children’s life,” she explains, “and I don’t see academic university life as being compatible with that.” Thus, Ms. Schefiliti has decided not to pursue a career in academia, instead planning to become a management consultant. In the field of management consulting, she will have the option of working part-time for a few years. She can take a break and get “back on track” afterwards. In short, she sees her career in management consulting as affording her a work-life balance that academic chemistry may not.

Nonetheless, Ms. Schefiliti’s decision to stay out of academia comes with regrets. Ms. Schefiliti spends a significant amount of time tutoring undergraduate women in their science studies, and she is amazed “to see how excited they get about science.” “I would love to be able to give back, to encourage more women to go into science,” she notes. “I would love a non- tenure track position where they just let me stay and do research.”

Work-life balance

Professor Christine Thomas of Brandeis University agrees that the greatest challenge for women in academia is trying to balance career and family responsibilities. “While this is a problem for women in all careers, it is particularly pronounced in academia because of the overlap of the tenure timeline with the time when society (and biology) dictate that women should be starting a family,” she says. While many universities now offer professors the option of taking time off of the tenure clock for having children, not everyone may feel comfortable availing herself of that option.

In any case, even with time off from teaching and committee work, the job of a chemistry professor is immensely time-consuming. As Professor Judith Herzfeld of Brandeis University explains, “You have to work more than a forty hour week to stay competitive...because grant funding is so tight.”

There are advantages to a career in academia. In academia, one has the option of working from home or bringing children to work. Professor Karen Allen of Boston University said some- times she meets collaborators at her home when she is responsible for watching her children. Her collaborators are, in general, understanding. “Flexibility is the key,” she says.

However, a career in industry may still be seen as more family-friendly. Professor Herzfeld explains that having children is not trivial in any profession, but in industry, there is maternity leave. In academia, it is difficult to take a real maternity leave without falling behind in research. “Hour-to-hour there is flexibility in academia,” she says, since professors can take time off or work from home if necessary. However, due to the necessity of maintaining research momentum in the laboratory, there is not the same flexibility from year to year in academia as is available in other careers.

Other issues

Professor Penny Beuning of Northeastern University, and President of the local chapter of Sigma Delta Epsilon- Graduate Women in Science, explains that there are other issues that face women in academia, in addition to figuring out how to navigate a work-life balance successfully. In particular, female chemistry professors tend to serve on more committees than their male colleagues. This trend is due to the fact that the committees are designed to have a certain percentage of female faculty, to ensure that women’s voices are heard. Given that there are fewer women than men on the faculty, the women ultimately serve on more committees. Consequently, their research productivity may decline. This phenomenon, says Professor Beuning, is “the unintended consequence of good intentions.” Professor Linda Doerrer of Boston University concurs that “most women carry an extra burden of community service.”

Moreover, there may be subtle, even subconscious, sexism that women chemistry faculty experience. “Things that are taken seriously when a male colleague says it are ignored when a woman does,” observes Professor Herzfeld, “but I think it is getting bet- ter.” Professor Liz Hedstrom of Brandeis University believes that people who are ten years older had a much tougher time, but that the environment has gotten better. Professor Beuning adds that, “sometimes women are not automatically assumed to be competent.”

Proactive measures

One of the proactive measures taken to encourage more women to pursue careers in science is to reach out to them at a young age. Allison Wensley, a fourth year graduate student at Boston University and head of the Women in Chemistry (BUWIC) group explains that the group has begun to do outreach in high schools and hopes to soon extend their program to middle schools as well. “I think it is a valuable thing to reach young women at an earlier stage,” she declares. “Middle school is really the best time. We can get girls excited about science...and they realize that they can do it.”

Graduate women’s groups like BU’s Women in Chemistry may also help attract and retain women in chemistry. Karen Ruff, a graduate student at Harvard University and former chair of Harvard Women in Chemistry (HWIC) says that when HWIC started ten years ago, the graduate student body was only 5-10% female. Now, the number of female graduate students has increased to 30%. The goals of HWIC, Ms. Ruff explains, “are to keep more women in science, provide mentors and support, and make the environment better for everyone.”

Similarly, the Women in Chemistry group at MIT seeks “to promote healthy social interaction with women in the department,” Ms. Schefiliti explains. A few years ago at MIT, the number of women leaving graduate school before the end of their second year was substantially higher than the number of men leaving. As a result of the efforts of the Women in Chemistry group, Ms. Schefiliti says, that number has decreased dramatically.

Women’s colleges can also create a supportive environment for women. Students at these colleges can receive more encouragement to pursue their career aspirations, including careers in fields where women are the minority. Professor Doerrer, who previously was a professor at Barnard College, says, “I think they (women’s colleges) play an invaluable role in creating a steady state of women who go out into the world with the attitude that they can do anything.” Professor Herzfeld, who attended Barnard College, agrees that at Barnard, “we were taught to believe we could be anything we want.”

Concluding Thoughts When asked whether she has seen resentment from male colleagues regarding efforts to promote and hire women faculty, Professor Allen says, “There will always be people who find that they want to go back to what is familiar and comfortable...but every- one understands that this is what we need to ensure a diverse, creative, multi-tasking department of chemistry...that meets the needs of students.”

Others agreed that any resentment only makes women’s work more important. “That’s why I think it is so important for people to get more women faculty, so that the next generation of graduate students will take women faculty seriously,” Ms. Ruff said. Professor Beuning agreed, “When you make things better for women, you make things better for everyone.”

Author’s note: I understand that every- one who works in chemistry is exceptionally busy. I am extremely grateful to the graduate students and professors who took the time to talk with me about the issues discussed in this article. Thank you for all of your advice and encouragement.