Equity in Academia
Where Are Women in Chemistry?

Although women have made significant contributions to the sciences during the last few decades, they still have earned only 25% of all science PhDs in the last 30 years. Today, fewer than 10% of full professors in the sciences are women.1 Even though more women than ever before are entering graduate programs in chemistry, academia is losing many of them to industry. In addition, female scientists face problems in academia that are unique to women.

Chemistry LasersAlthough women have made significant contributions to the sciences during the last few decades, they still have earned only 25% of all science PhDs in the last 30 years. Today, fewer than 10% of full professors in the sciences are women.1 Even though more women than ever before are entering graduate programs in chemistry, academia is losing many of them to industry. In addition, female scientists face problems in academia that are unique to women.

A recent Chemical and Engineering News survey of the top 50 universities in chemistry (departments identified by the National Science Foundation as having spent the most money on chemical research in 1998) found that women hold 10% of tenure-track positions in chemistry. Females account for only 6% of full professors, 21% of associate professors and 18% of assistant professors. At UF, four out of 46 tenure-track positions in chemistry, or 9%, are held by women. Rutgers University topped the list with 26% and Arizona State and SUNY Buffalo rounded out the bottom with 3%.2

The road to a career in academia has changed over the years. Analytical Chemistry Professor Vanecia Young has taught at UF since 1984 and has seen many changes in the hiring process for new faculty. "When I applied for my first academic position at Texas A&M in 1978, I had about eight publications listed on my resume. Today, that number is considered low. Most candidates have completed a postdoctoral position and might have 20 or 30 research articles already published when they apply for junior faculty positions. We are expecting people to do more in order to get here."

Even if a chemistry department actively recruits females and other minorities, the applicant pool does not always support the department's efforts. Chemistry Chair David Richardson explains, "This is an area where we are working diligently but not as successfully as I would like. We ran five searches over the last year, and overall the pool of applicants had very few females. However, in each search, the committees were instructed to actively encourage female applicants and focus carefully on the cases of those females that did apply. Despite the low proportion of females in the applications received, it is my hope that we interview female candidates for every position." Richardson says one idea for encouraging more women to apply for positions at UF is to invite more junior and senior female chemists from other institutions to participate in various seminar programs here, so they will have increased visibility outside the search process.

One of the possible reasons for a low female applicant pool involves what scientists often call the "two-body problem." A survey compiled by the American Chemical Society (ACS) last year found that 24% of female academic chemists are married to or partnered with a fellow chemist, and another 20% are married to or partnered with a non-chemist scientist.3 Three of the four tenure-track female faculty in chemistry at UF are married to a fellow scientist. Valeria Kleiman joined the chemistry department in January of this year, and her husband, Adrian Roitberg, is also on the faculty. She says her husband's job offer played an important role in her decision to come to UF. "Adrian and I are fairly unique because we have never lived apart. We've chosen to make this a priority for us, and fortunately it has worked. But it is not this way for everyone."

Finding the balance between working and starting a family is another issue many women face at an early point in their careers. Universities, however, tend to be slower than private industries in establishing family-friendly practices such as shared jobs, extended maternity leaves and on-site childcare facilities.1 According to the ACS survey, far more women than men work part-time because of family responsibilities; 28.5% of female academic chemists reported taking at least a six-month hiatus, compared to 11% of academic men. The reasons for these breaks in employment differed greatly for women and men: 58% of women, compared to only 1.4% of men, reported childcare or maternity or paternity leave as their reason for taking time off.3

Because there is a demand to produce research and publish widely during the first five years of a professorship, women who want to have children must plan carefully. Kleiman says, "I decided to have my child during the end of my PhD work because I did not want to wait until after I got a position and then had to work towards tenure."

Lisa McElwee-White, an organic chemistry professor and CLAS associate dean, had her first child while still on the faculty at Stanford University. "If you go straight through your course work, get a PhD when you are 26 or 27, do postdoctoral work for another two to three years, obtain a position at a university and work for four or five years to get tenure, then, by the time you are able to start a family, you could easily be 35 years old, the age at which pregnancy risks increase," she says.

Even though many universities have a policy that allows a junior professor to take time off during the first few years of her or his appointment and basically stop the tenure clock for a brief period, the general consensus is that departments do not look favorably upon a professor who opts for the delay. Several faculty members at UF and around the country suggest changing the system so that the first years of a professorship are somewhat easier on new faculty. Instead of assigning new faculty several large classes or labs, for instance, a university could allow more time for research and also delay the tenure process in some cases.

Young supports these suggestions, but says there is another school of thought some faculty may choose to maintain. "It's the mentality of 'We made it through, why can't you?' They feel new faculty should have to face the same hardships they did and not be given any breaks."

The freedom to do research and to work with fresh young minds underline the main reasons chemists say they choose to work in a university setting. Anna Brajter-Toth, who in 1983 became the first female professor in the chemistry department, comments, "In academia, I am able to explore the new ideas I develop, and working with students also contributes to my desire to stay in this environment. They are constantly questioning concepts in science, and by teaching them, I am learning new ways to think about my own research."

Valeria Kleiman agrees. "The main reason I chose academia is because of the presence of students and the constant challenges they present me with. I think I could run the same experiments here and in a national research lab, but at UF I have students whose questions are one of the main sources of my intellectual growth."

Independent research and teaching, however, sometimes do not serve as strong enough incentives for graduates with advanced degrees to remain in academia. Junior faculty positions at research universities are typically filled from the ranks of postdoctoral associates. The majority of UF's graduate students are choosing not to apply for these positions. "Industry continues to be the principal employer of our graduates," remarks Richardson. "I have also seen many of our graduate students go to primarily undergraduate institutions to teach, but relatively few end up in research universities. This is the norm for virtually all chemistry departments."

Even though admissions of females to the graduate program in chemistry at UF have ranged from 42-50% of all admissions over the last three years, Kathryn Williams, an associate scholar in chemistry who teaches lecture courses and supervises undergraduate labs, says women need more encouragement if they are going to pursue a career in academia. "We need our female professors to serve as mentors for the female graduate students, and we must encourage those graduate students to give female undergrads practical advice and empowerment to continue in chemistry." Kleiman agrees. "The only way we're going to get more women in academia is to encourage them to pursue science at much younger ages. It starts with teaching young girls in grade school basic scientific concepts to spark their interest. Then we have to continue encouraging them at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and faculty levels so they will start the cycle again."

McElwee-White points out that when she was in graduate school industry was viewed as the safe route to take while a career in academia had a more cutthroat reputation. "Even though things are changing and industry isn't as stable as it used to be, the majority of students in my research group over the last five years have chosen to go into industry. While there might not be the same level of research freedom, sometimes there are better salary benefits and working environments in business. So the problem is not necessarily the lack of women earning advanced degrees in chemistry, but convincing them to stay in academia."

Keisha-Gay Hylton, a graduate student in McElwee-White's group, says even though she enjoys lab work, she is leaning toward a position in the pharmaceutical industry. "I like the university setting, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn from Lisa and other faculty who are working on cutting edge research. Eventually, however, I want to leave the laboratory and go into a diversified area such as management, administration or patent law. I think there are more opportunities there for advancement in those areas."

Many studies and statistics show that the tenure system, abolition of mandatory retirement and cost-cutting measures at universities have made it difficult for women and minorities to reach leadership positions in academia. However, many faculty believe that after universities make a commitment to change, significant advances are possible. And while statistics and reports often focus on the disadvantages women face in science, McElwee-White maintains there is at least one distinct advantage. "When a group of chemists are together at a conference, and a female voice asks a question, everyone in the room turns around to see who is speaking. Also, when you publish a paper, and your name is obviously the only female author, people remember it."

Perhaps Anita Borg, founder of the Institute for Women and Technology at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, captures the essence of why equity is important. "There are a lot of very sane people who are beginning to understand that if technology and science are going to go forward with wild creativity, we need the brilliance of more than a narrow group of people. We need women--all kinds of women."1

--Allyson A. Beutke


Balancing the Equation

  • Women science PhDs are more likely than their male counterparts to come from liberal arts institutions.
  • A study by Wellesley College found that the opportunity to conduct research was a significant factor in a woman's decision to remain with a science major. However, studies conducted by the University of Florida and Carnegie Mellon found that women tend to enter scientific fields with a focus on helping people, rather than pure research.
  • Women constitute 45% of the workforce in the US, but hold just 12% of science and engineering jobs in business and industry.
  • African American women earn proportionally more science and engineering undergraduate degrees than African American men. The same is true for Latinas and Native American women compared to their male peers, but does not hold true for white and Asian women.
  • Among science, math and engineering faculty, women tend to teach at more junior levels than men and are less likely to be tenured. The salary gap between male and female faculty increases with age.
  • Contrary to the popular perception that women scientists leave academia because of demands at home, most remain continuously employed after completing their training.

Facts from Balancing the Equation: Where are Women and Girls in Science and Technology? a report released in July by the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW). The University of Florida's Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research was recently invited to join the NCRW and contributed to the report.


1. Balancing the Equation: Where are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering, and Technology?, a report from the National Council for Research on Women, July 2001.

2. Chemical and Engineering News, Vol. 79, No. 30 (September 25, 2000).

3. Women Chemists 2000, a report from the American Chemical Society, August 2000.

Jane Dominguez

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