Q&A with Polly Arnold

In October, the CICTor and WICTO co-hosted the spectacular Prof. Polly Arnold from the University of Edinburgh for the E. Gordon Young Lecture. She spoke about her passion for f-block chemistry and her advocacy for diversity in STEM. WICTO had the opportunity to ask Prof. Arnold our die hard questions on the video ‘A Chemical Imbalance’, strategies to make chemistry inclusive, and ways to challenge unconscious biases. These were her responses.

Many girls and young women view STEM fields as cold and that these fields are less impactful to the benefit of humanity. How can we show the impact that science has?

I always think it’s a shame it looks cold as we have to write scientific papers and reports in the absolutely correct format, and in the passive tense. If we wrote about the creative process and the excitement of discovery, of making something no one else in the living memory has ever made before, and growing beautiful coloured crystals of a new compound, our everyday lives would look completely different. But it’s prohibitively expensive to bring people into the lab to see our excitement in every day creativity and problem-solving. It would help if governments were able to help fund school children to do more practical work, and visit more real labs. The science festivals are doing a great job, but it’s hard to reach everyone, especially in areas who need the most encouragement.

For impact, that’s a no-brainer. Everything around us, from painless tooth-fillings to mobile phone technology to light-sensitive paints is made of chemicals and has been made and developed by chemists. But probably marketed to you by doctors and tech companies. Journalists never have science degrees because science and tech jobs pay better and have higher kudos. But they’re getting better at asking us what we do, and listening hard, and politicians are doing the same. They realise a knowledge-based economy in reality means science and tech. We do want to work with them, and the conversations are definitely improving. Articles like these help too…

In ‘A Chemical Imbalance’, many of the participants did not agree with being called a feminist. Since this video, have you seen a change in culture with that?

While feminism is still a pretty toxic label, many more people we interviewed have found their own version to be proud of, which I love. Including the men, who can be our best allies. I’ve been talking about ‘inclusion’ a lot recently, as it seems to cover intersectionality better than just the plain f-word. I wonder if this is our more palatable word. One that everyone would be proud to use, not just our traditional feminist base, and the fathers of teenage daughters.

In your talk on Saturday, you presented the graph from ‘A Chemical Imbalance’ that shows retention of women in various STEM fields. Chemistry, mathematics, and biology seems to have the largest dip, in comparison to physics, engineering, and computing. This could suggest that (1) women in physics, engineering, and computing are more likely to continue to full professorship once in a graduate program, (2) there is an equal amount of available positions for women across the fields in more senior positions, or (3) there are better policies in place in those fields to retain women. Could you comment on this?

My gut feeling, which is not scientific, so you must not take this as fact, is that the self-selection process is happening hard at an early age in the most mathematical of the physical sciences. So the women who start are already more intensely interested in the perceived focus of the subject. And I use the word perceived on purpose here. The area of chemistry I work in is highly creative, and the only maths I need is addition and fractions. I am sure we could have caught the interest of many more young women out there who’d be much better at doing what I do if the perception of scientific research was closer to reality.

You speak of the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry as having a “critical mass” of female faculty. What is the threshold for attaining a “critical mass”?

It’s generally accepted as 20 %. The point at which you no longer feel like an odd one out. Which means that, on average, women in most senior management meetings don’t feel like they fit in. I find this very sad.

Sci Sisters is all about bringing women together and removing that isolation factor. Since the launch date, do you find that there has been an improvement in feeling like there is a community?

It’s only been going a few months so it’s too early to have data, so you’ll never get a straight answer out of a scientist at this point! But there have been some nice positives. Firstly, a lot of people round the world have tried to join, and when I’ve told them I’m focusing on Scotland in the first instance (because it’s just me curating the web-map) many have volunteered to curate regional areas so I can roll it out worldwide. I have had a few great moments where people such as the BBC and student societies have used the map it generates to find a local expert.

What can we do to fix our own unconscious bias?

Sadly, most of the studies say we can’t. For both men and women, they’ve been deeply ingrained by society. We can just be aware of them, and make efforts to compensate for them. And most importantly, realise that they’re harder to suppress when we’re tired, drunk, or stressed. So we need to factor in thinking time when we have difficult hiring decisions (for example) to make.

 Please see our previous blog post for a synopsis of her public lecture.

About womeninchemto

Women in Chemistry, Toronto Chapter (WICTO) is student-run initiative started in 2014 to promote gender diversity within the chemistry community through awareness, engagement and advocacy.