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Accessible Published by De Gruyter July 2, 2015

Mind the Gap: Comparison of the role played by women in the departments of Chemistry of two universities and the influence of gender on their participation

Vânia Zuin
From the journal Chemistry International

Women who conduct scientific researches in diverse places have unique experiences. Vânia Zuin recently spent more than one year at the University of York, UK, in sabbatical from her home institution in Brazil. In this feature, she shares her observations of the role played by women in the departments of Chemistry of both universities. Her experiences will be part of the documentation to be reviewed in the context of the project “Accelerating Participation and Leadership of Women in Chemistry”, recently supported by ICSU (see project description p. 26).

Introduction: an historical construction

The social role of women has been deeply transformed over the last two centuries, especially after the industrial revolution. The most important dimension in this transformation of women’s identities seems to be the movement towards female participation in the paid labour force (Storry, Childs, 2013, 126). Today, more than 75% of women aged 15-64 are employed in Britain, whereas in Brazil this figure stands at only 51%, mostly in the service sector, but still earning less than the average salary for men (Fundação Carlos Chagas, 2014).

From left to right: Prof. Vânia Zuin (UFSCar, Brazil), her daughter Júlia Zuin and Dr. Jennifer Dodson (University of York, UK).

A number of women are working in previously male-dominated areas, as is the case in the sciences. According to a recent publication (Campbell, 2013), in the USA and Europe about 50% of those who gain doctoral degrees in science and engineering are female, but barely 1 in 5 full professors are women (Figure 1). There aren’t a significant number of women on scientific advisory boards (journal editorial boards, grant-reviewing boards, academic selection committees etc.), among conference keynote speakers, or as leaders in start-up or well-established companies. In this context of male dominance at all the levels of decision-making that impact academic careers, women are rarely observed, giving the impression that science belongs essentially to men.

Figure 1. The data refers to professorships at the most senior level in Germany (DE), Europe (EU), and the USA. Graph: Humboldt Foundation (Berg, 2013).

Proximity and distance between the roles played by women in the Chemistry departments of two universities in Brazil and the United Kingdom

In order to find possible similarities and differences of the presence of women in Chemistry, the situation in Brazil and the United Kingdom have been taken into account in this essay. The Departments of Chemistry at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar, São Paulo State, Brazil) and at the University of York (UK) were studied, and the numbers of women, their positions in the academic career as well as other relevant information available on both web pages were employed as the main data source.

UFSCar was established in 1968 and until 2006 was the first and only Federal university in the interior part of the State of São Paulo, Brazil. From the inauguration of the institution, through a presidential enactment in December 1968, to the effective beginning of its teaching activities in 1970, the Trancham Farm was indicated as suitable grounds to receive the university. Thus, the buildings of the farm were adapted to turn into administration offices, classrooms and laboratories. In the 1970s the first three academic centers of the institution were created. In order to accommodate one of the initial courses at the University, the Center of Exact Sciences and Technology was created in 1972. In the same year, the institution started to offer undergraduate courses in Physics and Chemistry (UFSCar, 2014).

Nowadays, after a significant expansion of the Brazilian federal Higher Education system over the last 10 years (resulting in more than 17 000 undergraduate and postgraduate students in UFSCar), the Department of Chemistry has expanded the numbers of staff and currently has 52 lecturers and professors in five traditional subareas (Organic, Analytical, Physical, Inorganic, and Biochemistry). Figure 2 shows that women place just 26% of the total lecturers and professors at the Department of Chemistry at UFSCar, but this value is lower in the top level (20%; n=1). Historically in Brazil, the coordination of typical female territories have been conducted by women (undergraduate courses), but not in domains where the technological and scientific production majority occurs, such as the post-graduation program in Chemistry at UFSCar, one of the best programs in the country.

Despite the high number of UFSCar members in Brazilian scientific decision-making committees and boards (i.e., the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, CAPES; The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, CNPq; São Paulo Research Foundation, FAPESP; the International Pure and Applied Chemistry, IUPAC; journals etc.), few are women.

Figure 2. Profile of the lecturer and professor staff at the DC-UFSCar (2014).

Figure 3. Profile of the lecturer and professor staff at the Department of Chemistry (DC) University of York (2014).

In light of these numbers, a quite similar situation can be observed in the Department of Chemistry at the University of York today, in which 19% of the total of lecturers and professors are women, none of whom are the Head or Deputy Head of Department, Chair of Graduate School or a Chair of Board of Studies (Figure 3). However, these data do not fully demonstrate deliberate institutional efforts that have been made by this department, aiming to promote female participation at all levels.

Programs to foment women's careers in higher education and research in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics disciplines (known as the STEMM) have been launched all over the world, as ways to chip away at this invisibility and asymmetrical pattern of female participation in science. In the UK, among others, one initiative is the Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) Charter, a scheme to recognize good employment practice for women in science, engineering and technology in higher education and research. As stated on its website, “Chemistry at York was the first academic department in the UK to receive the Athena SWAN Gold award, first attained in 2007 and then renewed in October 2010. A submission for further renewal of the award was made in November 2013” (University of York, 2014).

In fact, the first step in facing this challenging topic is to recognize its existence. Also, it is of fundamental importance to connect the academic gender debate to other so-called soft factors of combining work and family. It seems obvious that the topic is not a “female” matter. According to Shen (2013, 22), “many of the UK chemistry students viewed research as an all-consuming endeavor that was incompatible with raising a family. Meeting the demanding schedule of academic research can seem daunting for both mothers and fathers. But family choices seem to weigh more heavily on the career goals of women”. Storry and Childs (2013) also pointed out that the overall UK picture that emerges, although more flexible and gradually more distant of the two-parent family model, is that British teenagers expect to have both a successful career and a family, but based on the present working conditions they are “unlikely to achieve both these aims”.

In Brazil, debates as well as programs to support the presence of women in science are yet incipient. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences—founded in 1916 to promote the development of national based research and to diffuse the notion of science as a factor promoting prosperity and the technological development—currently has 73 female members out of a total of 643 members, which corresponds to circa 11.4% (ABC, 2014). More recently, the CNPq launched two research programs to face the gender roles in all areas of knowledge, especially the scientific and technological ones: ‘Pioneer women in Brazilian science’ (Melo; Rodrigues, 2000) and ‘Young Brazilian researcher women’ (CNPq, 2014). Traditionally, the number of female scientists decreases in top careers levels; the female participation in grant productivity sponsored by the Brazilian National Research Council, (considered as an academic criterion of excellence), correspond to 36% of the total grants (2013: 4.970 for women and 8.994 for men). Among these women, only 0,2% were granted within the superior categories PQ1 (PQ1B-1-D), substantially different from men. The CNPq undergraduate grants for women, contrarily, are 56% of the total. So, as in the UK, the challenges remain in higher levels of the academic career.

Spencer (2013) argues that not only the things that happen to women, but also the so-called “non-events”, affect them in pursuing a career in science or that slow their career development; the non-events “are about not being seen, heard, supported, encouraged, taken into account, validated, invited, included, welcomed, greeted or simply asked along. They are a powerful way to subtly discourage, sideline or exclude women from science. A single non-event—for example, failing to cite a relevant report from a female colleague—might seem almost harmless. But the accumulation of such slights over time can have a deep impact. Non-events are challenging to recognize and often difficult to respond to. Nothing happened, so why the fuss? Often, non-events are perceived only in hindsight or when comparing experiences with peers. Learning to recognize various non-events would help women scientists to respond to them, individually or collectively, with confidence and without embarrassment. Anonymous pooling of non-event experiences would be an eye-opener and a good start to understanding how non-events work in various scientific settings”. Again, we need to be aware of the events, but also the meaning of non-events.

Outlines about some of major concerns related to gender in contemporary Britain. To what extent are these valid to women in Chemistry?

Despite the differences between Brazilian and British macro-contexts, in general, the role of women in Chemistry seems to be quite similar in some extent. In the UK, considering the Department of Chemistry at the University of York as one example, the debate about gender is not recent, and some practical results can be already observed: the Athena SWAN Gold award (2007, 2010 and, probably, in 2013), the Department demonstrated “a substantial and well-established activity and achievement record in working towards equality in career progression in STEMM”; showed “initiative to increase numbers of women students;” and demonstrated “beacon activities in gender equality to the wider community."

In June 2013, the Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee launched an inquiry into the loss of women from STEMM careers. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) response was based upon a number of documents and contributions from several members, also those closely involved in the Athena SWAN application and assessment process. Several gender identity topics discussed by Storry and Childs (2013) were present in the RSC response, most of them extend beyond gender recommendations and could be translated to support diversity more widely. There is evidence that alternatives, more flexible family structures and community support groups have taken place more recently. For British women, specially the scientists/chemists, it is clear that the current situation is in transition (as always), and the chances to women are better than ever before, despite facing enormous challenges: as role-models for young women, as educators of more future female leaders, recruiting the best women researchers on the market of today.

Please, mind also the connections. Science, as an historical and social construction, is a network. Its robustness, impact, pertinence and beauty are directly proportional to the high intellectual level, interdisciplinary, engagement and diversity of people involved, obviously including the female universe.


Prof. Zuin would like to thank all colleagues and friends involved in this project from Brazil and England, especially Chris Copland and Lindsay Clark (the University of York, UK), as well as São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP, Brazil) and Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES, Brazil) for their fundamental support.


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Vânia Zuin <> and <> is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Federal University of São Carlos, São Paulo, Brazil and was a visiting Professor of the Department of Chemistry at the University of York, UK during the period of January 2014 to February 2015. Her background is Analytical Green Chemistry and Green Chemistry Education. Prof. Zuin is a member of the Brazilian Chemistry Society (SBQ) and, since 2012, the coordinator of the Green Chemistry Section of the SBQ. She also has established a well-structured network between industrial, governmental, and non-governmental sectors to improve the research and application of Green Chemistry knowledge in Brazil and abroad. As a participant of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation research network started in 2005 (AvH, Germany), she was elected president of the Club Humboldt in Brazil in 2015. Recent distinctions include the 52nd National Literary Jabuti Bronze Award (Brazilian Book Chamber), the title of Honorary Visiting Fellow at the University of York (UK), the IUPAC 2014 CHEMRAWN VII Prize for Atmospheric and Green Chemistry, and the title of Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (FRSC) in 2015.

Online erschienen: 2015-7-2
Erschienen im Druck: 2015-7-1

©2015 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Boston