It is no exaggeration to say that the life of Royal Society of Chemistry Fellow, Dr Marcia Philbin, has been nothing short of extraordinary and inspiring. Through the highs and the lows, Marcia has maintained her infectious ‘glass half full’ attitude, which has no doubt contributed to her success.
Last year, Marcia achieved her dream of becoming a Chief Executive in a field she loves, all while supporting others along the way through her fantastic outreach work. But at the same time, as a Black woman in science, Marcia has had to endure the ever-present aggressions of racism and sexism to get to where she is today. Not only has Marcia risen above prejudice and discrimination, she is now working with the RSC to help uncover and dismantle the very systems that sustain them.
Now, as the Chief Executive of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, a membership body for pharmaceutical physicians, Marcia is already making great progress towards her aim of modernising the organisation and extending the support they offer. Alongside this, she has also been undertaking vital research into issues surrounding women and equality in pharmaceutical medicine and more widely across chemistry careers, with financial support from the RSC’s Inclusion and Diversity Fund.
“Initial research has shown that Black women earn less than not just White men, but White women also. So, in conjunction with the RSC, we want to look at the experiences of Black women in chemistry specifically. We not only need to make sure these voices are heard, we need to take action. We are at the stage where the internal structures of businesses and organisations, of society as a whole, need to change.
“Look at the shift to working at home due to coronavirus, for example. We had to make changes rapidly, overnight, and we did it. People are still productive, flexible working does work. In the same vein, we should be able to address the underlying issues of racism and sexism in the workplace.
“In our organisation, staff know they have permission to call out discrimination and I will back them. This is the culture we instil from the beginning and it applies to everyone. It’s about respect. You can’t discriminate or treat someone differently or unfavourably because of who they are. You don’t have to agree with what they say or what they believe but you cannot treat them unjustly. That’s the key thing.
“That’s why I’m proud to be a member of the RSC, because the work they’re doing in this area is way ahead of everyone else. When the RSC’s Breaking the Barriers report (a survey on women's retention and progression in the chemical sciences) came out, I shared that far and wide with my network and the reaction has been fantastic. Things are starting to happen and I feel positive about the future.”
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Marcia’s passion for making positive change in this area stems in part from her own experiences, as she has been subjected to racism and sexism in both her professional and personal life – even back at school and university. But thanks to her hard work and a handful of enthusiastic role models, she has forged an impressive career in chemistry nonetheless.
“Looking right back, I think the first thing that inspired me to be a scientist was Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek: The Original Series! I grew up during a time where, in the media, the only time there was ever anything good about Black people was if it was sport related or music. To see somebody like Lieutenant Uhura, who wasn’t a maid or a criminal, but instead a very positive scientist figure in their own right. That was just so inspiring to me. Although outraged TV executives at the time were threatening to cancel the programme because it was so controversial!
“My other inspiration was my father. My parents were part of the Windrush Generation and believed that education was extremely important. I remember he asked me one day, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I listed off a few things, but they weren’t particularly aspirational. And he said to me, ‘Why don’t you aim higher? You could do better than that.’ And I thought to myself, yeah, I can! So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to be a brain surgeon!’”
It’s perhaps not surprising that Marcia’s first answer to her father’s question was somewhat subdued, since she had been told by a teacher at school that she would never get into university, let alone pass her O-levels.
“That teacher told the White girl next to me that they would achieve all their dreams. I thought, ‘I’ll show them!’”
After initially wanting to do medicine, Marcia discovered that A-level biology wasn’t really her bag, but when it came to chemistry, she excelled. Since then, she hasn’t looked back.
“I studied applied chemistry at the University of Aston, which was a four year sandwich degree. My third year was at the Esso Research Centre in Oxfordshire – a fantastic opportunity that opened my eyes to the real world application of chemistry. I learnt about fuel additives and worked on developing new ones, which went into petrol for cars. I’m still very particular about which petrol station I go to nowadays!
“The day I started the placement was also the day my father died. He was out in Jamaica at the time, building a house for his retirement with my mother. I asked her what I should do. She said, ‘Well you should go and do your placement, because it’s what he would have wanted you to do.’ I’m thankful that I had called him the previous weekend and spoken to him about what I was doing. He was really, really proud. He was the one who said aim higher and I was now at university doing just that.”
From day one of her studies, Marcia’s aim was to become a doctor, but she would be a doctor of chemistry, rather than of medicine as she had wished as a child. So after graduating, Marcia went straight into a PhD programme sponsored by BP Chemicals, which was when she first encountered the RSC.
“I was really proud of getting my degree and then to go on to do a PhD, so joining the RSC was like a badge of honour. I really liked that I got to be part of this amazing club, a royal society. To say you’re a member, it’s an honour, a privilege, and it’s something I wanted to be a part of. And I wanted the letters after my name of course! That made me feel like, ‘Yes, I’ve arrived!’ It was special to me and to my parents as well. When I got the RSC certificate, my mum put it up on the wall! Now I’ve been a member for over 30 years!”
“To begin with I loved the social events side I got involved in at that time. The networking side of things was important to me – it was about how the RSC could boost my skills and open up my network. There was a Women in Chemistry series, so I went to some of those events. I remember it was just good to see what other women were doing – understanding where chemistry could take you and how they achieved success and overcame barriers.”
With her PhD drawing to an end, Marcia began considering her career options and wondering whether to pursue a postdoc abroad or to look for something different.
“Funnily enough, my supervisor had a contract with the Ministry of Defence and their synthetic chemistry group were looking for a polymer chemist. I interviewed for it and got offered the job. I couldn’t believe it! I was excited to start a ‘real world’ role because I knew that I could always go back to academic research. Joining the MoD there was also the idea of keeping queen and country safe. I liked that aspect of it. It sounds cool – and it was.”
However, Marcia did have to come to terms with the fact that the prejudices and stereotypes that had marred some of her earlier experiences were no less prevalent in the workplace.
“My first day was...interesting, let’s say! Two of the first people I encountered asked if I was the new secretary. I told them, “No, I’m a scientist!” I wasn’t what they were expecting it seems and they instantly put me in the category where they thought I belonged.
“This sort of thing is still going on today, but it is more hidden. A few years ago I organised a meeting with senior people, including directors. I turned up with an administrator, who was White, went into the room and someone went straight up to the White woman and said, ‘You must be Marcia.’ And I said ‘No, I’m Marcia.’ Like they were thinking, there’s no way this Black woman could be in a senior position. There are so many microaggressions like that you don’t even register anymore. It’s so draining and you get fed up with explaining. But I’m a positive person, nobody is holding me back.”
After a successful 20 years as an MoD scientist, and becoming a mother to twin boys in the meantime, a change in circumstances saw Marcia jump at the chance to become Assistant Director at the Royal School of Paediatrics and Child Health. With her previous experience in programme management and role as a Non-Executive Director for the local hospital trust, she was the perfect candidate.
“I applied and got called for an interview, I couldn’t believe it! Three hours after the interview I got the phone call offering me the job and I nearly fell off the chair! Then self-doubt started to creep in. Can I do it?! I have to go to London, I have to catch a train! Then I thought, ‘STOP! Just go for it.’ And it was an absolutely brilliant place to work. So inspiring. Excitingly, a lot of people found me and my story inspiring as well – I was asked to give presentations about women in science, which went down really well.”
Three years later, on the daily commute home, Marcia was searching online for the next step up in her career when she spotted the CEO role at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine. Once again, she went for it. And guess what? She got the job.
“I was speechless. Truthfully. But I’m so glad that I took the opportunity and ran with it. I have now been in the role for 14 months and I’m really enjoying it, it’s fantastic. It’s an organisation that has been stable and steady for a long time – it had its 30 year anniversary last year – but it needed to change, and I’m changing it.
“It’s so great to be in a position now where I can have some effect on the issues that I’m passionate about. I’m very proud, and my mother is so proud. All my family are.”
Now, as well as progressing her report on Black women in chemistry, Marcia has also been invited to sit on the RSC's Diversity and Inclusion board, to collaborate with other members on how to move forwards. There is no doubt that she will bring invaluable experience and knowledge to the table that will in turn help promote equality in chemistry around the world.
“When I think where I’ve come from, I think I’ve done okay! For someone who was told she was never going to get into university, let alone pass O-levels. Now to be a CEO, well, I think I’ll give myself a pat on the back.
“I say to my sons, no matter what happens, just keep going forwards. Say, ‘Yes, I can do that,’ and just go for it.” Advice that seems to have worked very well for Marcia indeed.