Women in chemistry: time to react

 It is the International Year of Chemistry, as I expect you know, and 100 years since Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize. While a lot has changed for women in science, the fact is there is still a distance to go. In the European Union, while women PhD graduates equal or outnumber men in almost all academic disciplines, they remain under-represented in science, mathematics and computing (41 per cent) and seriously under-represented in engineering (25 per cent).

The dearth of academically qualified female scientists at doctorate level simply fuels a downward spiral in numbers of women researchers in industry and in senior management. Of the FT’s top 50 women in global business this year, there are just two mechanical engineers: Ellen Kullman (chief executive of DuPont) and Ursula Burns (chief executive of Xerox). Li Xiaolin, chief executive of  China Power International Development, has an MSc in engineering (power systems), as does Ho Ching, chief executive of Temasek Holdings in Singapore. The lone chemist in the ranking is Olivia Lum, founder and chief executive of Hyflux, one of the world’s leading makers of membrane-based desalination and water treatment plants. There is not one European business leader in our ranking who has a science background.

Earlier this week, I was in Brussels to moderate a starry panel of speakers representing industry and European Union policymakers on the theme: European Women: innovating for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Hosted by the European Chemical Industry Council, the line-up included Luisa Prista, head of green technology at the EU; Cheryl Miller, founder of Zen Digital Europe and European Director of Greenlight for Girls; Cécile Gréboval, secretary-general of the European Women’s Lobby; Carla Hilhorst, vice-president, global regulatory affairs, at Unilever; Martina Bianchini, vice president of EU government affairs and policy at Dow Chemicals; and Henriette van Eijl, from the policy development unit at the European Commission. The former Swedish diplomat, Linda Corugedo Steneberg, now at the EU’s Directorate General for Information, Society and Media, closed the discussion.

Stressing the urgent need to redress the gender imbalance especially in material sciences, Luisa Prista said:

“If we want to increase the number of students in the natural sciences and engineering, we need to address the gender dimension. The same is true if our goal is to strengthen innovation and enhance the quality of European research. It would be absurd to pick the talents only from half of the population in a moment where new skills to face the current scientific challenges are so much needed.”

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