Gender in the lab: is science inclusive?; making more sustainable fertilisers

Conferences, Media releases, RACI Centenary Chemistry Congress

Friday 28 July 2017, at the RACI Centenary Chemistry Congress, Melbourne Convention Centre

Today at the Centenary Chemistry Congress

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Gender in the lab: is science inclusive and how do we stop women leaving academia?

Half of Australia’s university science students are women, and yet only 21 per cent of the professors teaching them are too. What can we learn from a British bloke to change this?

“It is not my job to correct the inequitable distribution of domestic labour in heterosexual couples. It is my job to make the Imperial College London Department of Chemistry the most successful it can be,” says Professor Tom Welton.

And he’s getting the results to back that up.

Tom led the team at the Imperial College London Chemistry Department to a gold Athena Swan Award for promoting gender equality. He has just been awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for ‘diversity in education’.

Tom knows there is no genetic predisposition for men to be better than women at chemistry, so the fact that his department’s leadership team of 20 people was entirely white and had only one woman concerned him.

“Australia and the UK both suffer from a ‘leaky pipeline’, with a disproportionate number of women leaving academia at all career stages. This loss of female talent is a loss for science and broader society,” he says.

Tom instituted a series of changes to reverse that trend, including changes to recruitment practices, transparency in decision-making, unconscious bias training, and additional support for those who have taken parental leave to get their research back up to speed.

”You want your gender equity action plans to be things you can make a difference on,” he says. “The things you can’t control or influence fall into the category I call ‘a waste of bloody time’.”

Tom’s been asked if promoting women in science has been a distraction from the Chemistry Department’s core work. His firm answer is that there’s a strong business case, not just a moral case, for supporting women in science.

“We’re now performing better on many research metrics and in international league tables. We’re an employer of choice, and our research income has increased dramatically.”

He approaches women in science as part of broader ‘inclusivity efforts’—he is himself from a disadvantaged blue-collar background in the UK, has a disability and is openly gay, so he has his own personal perspective on inclusivity.

“Inclusivity is about differences being shared and explored, not being feared. Recognise you have a diverse community,” says Tom.

Making more sustainable fertilisers

Professor Doug MacFarlane from Monash University is looking at how to use renewable energy to make more sustainable fertilisers, by the direct reduction of nitrogen to ammonia.

He’s also been looking at how to make biofuels and other valuable chemicals from fruit processing waste.