The conversation was chaired by the brilliant Dr Suze Kundu, chemist, science communicator, and Head of Public Engagement at Digital Science.
The theme of International Women’s Day 2020
is "Each for Equal", which asks every individual to consider what they will do to forge a gender equal world. During the course of the evening, guests were invited to add a commitment to our "Pledge Wall", saying what they will do to help forge a gender equal world.
Every career path is different
Dr Suze Kundu, Head of Public Engagement at Digital Science: Often when we think about chemistry careers we think about academia being the only thing, and we think about careers as having a very linear path. Now I know that you two have had brilliantly meandering careers that led you to where you are today. So can you start by giving us an overview of your careers so far?
Professor Dame Carol Robinson, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Chair of Dr Lee’s Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and Co-founder and Director of OMass Therapeutics: I started as a laboratory technician at Pfizer – seven very happy years. I did RSC qualifications, so it's a sort of home from home to be back here. I then did a PhD, and then I had a seven year career break, which is very unusual nowadays, to raise my three children.
I came back as a postdoc, and then got a fellowship, which transformed my life, and then went on to be a research professor, and now I’m the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, so I'm very proud to be that person.
Suze: I think having somebody like you leading the chemical sciences in such a way is so important, because you understand from a personal perspective that there’s no one route into becoming a chemist.
Dr Helen Pain, Acting CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry: I walked through the doors of Burlington House just after my 25th birthday and I’ve been here ever since. Having said that my career has taken a few twists and turns along the way, and that's mainly because I tend not to say no to anything.
I did my degree and PhD down at Exeter and I knew from a very early start during my PhD that I wanted to work with chemists. When I saw the job at the RSC advertised in New Scientist –Younger Chemist Liaison Officer as it was called at the time – I thought "that's something I can do". So I came here to recruit students.
I thought I had the best job in the world, because I went round universities, meeting students. And I’ve been really fortunate since then, because I've worked my way through the organisation, overseeing and working with most of the teams, and taking on new opportunities probably every couple of years, until I found myself as deputy CEO. This this year – my gosh – I’m acting CEO.
Suze: A question here for both of you: have you ended up where you thought you would end up? Did you want to do this when you grew up? What do you want to do when you grow up?
Helen: When I was at school I wanted to be a medical doctor, but I think with a surname like Pain that might have been quite amusing! And I also realised that the dead body bit was a bit a too challenging for me.
But I did realise from an early age I wanted to do science. I had an inspirational teacher – an absolutely amazing teacher. Once I went to university and did a chemistry degree I realise I wanted to work with chemists. I actually said to my PhD supervisor, "I want to go to the RSC and organise conferences". You could say that I had an aspiration way back then, and I've always been quite aspirational in terms of aiming for the top.
So in a way, yes, I've ended up doing exactly what I set out to do and exactly what I wanted to do.
Suze: There’s so many facets to having a career in chemistry, and it’s great that you knew that this route was an option for you. It’s so important to expose young people to the range of careers that are available within chemistry – it’s not just academia.
Carol: My story is a complete contrast. My parents sent me to an all-girls school where we did typing, needlework, cookery, and things like that. I wanted to go to grammar school but my parents didn’t see the point. I didn’t like school at all and I didn’t really work much – I wasn’t a particularly good pupil.
But I ended up having a very inspirational chemistry teacher. He was newly qualified – very creative and imaginative – and we were all very inspired by him. A great teacher can make a huge difference. I now I’m still here, in the chemical sciences!
Suze: Absolutely. It’s an incredibly hard job to be a teacher - to keep your students motivated for those prolonged periods of time. And I know the Royal Society of Chemistry does a lot to cater for teachers in particular. If you’re a teacher or know any, check out the website – it’s full of great resources, especially for science week, which is coming up.
Suze: I think that in the chemical sciences we’re not very good at talking about failure. We don’t embrace failure, we don’t have promotion criteria that depend on anything not having worked, and we don’t tend to publish negative results.
I personally think there’s a lot of value in failing, because it’s a step towards success.
So what do you think about failure? Has there been a moment when you experienced failure, and more importantly how have you overcome it and is there anything you still take from that?
Carol: So, many failures of course, everybody has them.
One that I really learned from was when I was young. When I came back from my career break I applied for my first fellowship. I put so much effort in and I didn’t get it. I remember getting this thin envelope – it was my son’s birthday and I had to pretend everything was fine but I was really devastated.
I decided I would like to know why I wasn’t considered, so I rang them and asked. They said it was because I was "not very international". I had three young children so it was hard to travel. I explained this and they said "you just need to get some international referees".
So then I fixed that very simple thing and the next year I got it. And my career completely changed.
I always say now if you don’t get the position you want you have to make that difficult call. Ask for some pointers. Failure can be good, because you can build on it and learn from it. It’s difficult though!
Helen: Science is all about experimentation, and experimentation is about failing and succeeding. So we should be able to talk about failure.
My story of failure is quite personal and I’ve never really spoken about it before. At school I was quite academic, I did well in exams, and I went to university. I had a fantastic chemistry teacher but my real passion was maths, so I chose a double honours subject – chemistry and maths. Maths was my thing though. But when I arrived at university I realised that maths at university is really, really hard compared to A-level. So at the end of my first year, I found that I hadn’t done so well in my maths exams, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to carry on into my second year.
That sense of failure was enormous – just beyond anything I’d experienced. I had to really compose myself and make some quick decisions about my next steps. I knew I would have to resit one of the exams at the end of the summer.
That summer I was working a bank, and I spent all my time on the bus to and from work studying and revising, as well as every lunchtime. Luckily, when I got to that exam I did really well, so thank goodness for that.
What I learned from the experience was how to really gather my resilience, focus on what I could do, and how I could get control and make a difference to the situation. And now every day I find something where I draw upon that bit of energy and resilience. I do wonder whether, if I hadn’t gone through that, whether I would have had the strength to do some of the things I’ve done later on in my career.
So if you fail at something – do try to hold on to what you learn – because I’ve found that really helpful over the years.
Suze: You said you were 'lucky' to have passed, but in the same sentence you said you worked really hard. So was it luck or did you work hard to get it?
Helen: No I did work hard.
Suze: I think we attribute an awful lot to luck. "We were lucky to end up in this position, we were lucky that someone put us forward for something." Sometimes it's luck, a lot of the time it's good support, we also need to remember that we're all working really hard. And it pays off.
Helen: We sometimes assume things come naturally to certain individuals, but they don’t necessarily. Sometimes what you see is a result of a lot of hard work and determination.
Suze: I think building resilience is a really interesting thing as well. I know that at Wimbledon High, which is a girls’ school, they do a "failure week". I think we need to instil the fact that failure really builds resilience. So embrace your failures more! Talk about them, because they're very humanising.
Suze: Now we’ve talked about failures, I want to ask what are your greatest successes so far?
Helen: Ten years ago I led a project here to refurbish this library. It was not in great shape – the lighting for instance was very 1960s, and it had a rather interesting carpet. I had just returned from maternity leave and I said to my boss that I felt I needed my next big challenge. So I was given a year to secure funding and achieve a complete transformation of the library.
I invested so much of my time and energy, and I did realise that I really should have been an architect! Deep down my passion is absolutely in spaces and buildings and I can’t get away from that. Every time I’m in this room – for a meeting or a dinner or an event – the sense of pride is amazing. You can find me stroking the walls sometimes!
Carol: Something very new to me is my spinout company. We had a few great discoveries in our group and I happened to be talking about it and someone said, “I’d like to give you a million pounds to make it into something”.
I was really shocked but I got my team together and we spun this company out. When we were going for our second round of funding and someone invited us to practise our pitch on them. I thought it would just be a good experience with some good feedback, but they loved it and we got 42 million!
I don’t want to sound like an advert but I’m very proud of it now. We took over a brownfield site and made a nice new swanky building, and it’s created a huge number of jobs for people all over the world. I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneurial sort of person, and I never thought I’d be sitting here saying I had a spinout company, but I’ve very proud of it now.
Suze: Does the RSC provide any support or advice for people who might be thinking of starting a spinout?
Helen: Our EnterprisePlus scheme is all about supporting SMEs, and over many years we’ve been focusing on innovation and support for startup companies. Chemistry Mean Business, our annual flagship industry event, is where we bring people together. It’s a chance for those who've had experience in industry to share their knowledge and inspire those who are starting.
The whole culture of chemistry is about collaboration and sharing. So the RSC works very hard to provide those opportunities.
We also run the Emerging Technologies Competition – if someone has a germ of an idea then the competition provides an opportunity for some funding at the very beginning. We’ve seen some great successes as a result of that.
Suze: I think sometimes people don't realise what makes a good idea. If any of you in this room have done a small software fix or something, anything that makes your working life easier, actually a lot of other people could be benefitting from that.
So I’d say to anyone in the community – don’t be afraid to ask about funding.
Now if you could give anyone in the early career stage on piece of advice, or go back and give some advice to your younger self, what would you say?
Carol: I'd tell my younger self to be more confident. Because I felt so long in my career feeling I was in the wrong place – massive impostor syndrome – because I’d left school early and started my career in industry.
Suze: I think there's a culture of expectation that you have to fit a certain mold. And in order to have a more inclusive workforce we need to really change that culture. But it's very hard to do because there are barriers to inclusion at almost every stage of research, whether it's grant funding, it's peer review... All of these things can have an element of unconscious or sometimes conscious bias.
So what can we do about that? And how can we build confidence in people to overcome those barriers?
Carol: Really celebrate your difference. Don’t go around pretending it’s a bad thing – make it a good thing. We all bring different things, I’d say we should be almost bringing out our differences.
I guess as you get older you just think “this is me”. Whereas when I was younger I would always hide things and try not to expose myself as being a bit different, and I wish I'd got over that earlier.
Questions from the audience
Audience question: My question is about representation. We want to see representation, but also we want to be there on our own merit. How do we strike that balance, without feeling that you're only there because you're female or you're black and so on?
Suze: Often people that are underrepresented suffer from a kind of fatigue of always being wheeled out to represent women or BAME people or women in engineering and so on. So how can we make sure that people are there on merit, without anyone feeling that they're there as a token person?
Carol: Whenever I'm faced with this I never say "I want to get BME or women" I always say "I think we should include a younger age group". Because if you look around, science is much more inclusive in the younger age group than it is in the older age group.
Suze: Inclusivity is hard, and it's always going to be hard, and it's difficult to talk about, but we have to have these uncomfortable conversations, to really understand what the barriers are
Helen: I think the answer is not about focussing and pinpointing for one particular event – it’s about being more inclusive and widening those networks in everything that we do. We have to encourage more individuals to come forward and be part of the community, so when the opportunity comes for a panel or speakers then we have a much broader pool to go to.
We’re talking about the same thing in our awards review at the moment – looking at how we can ensure that more women nominate and are nominated.
We can all play a part in this because we’re all part of this wider network. It’s about actually being inclusive, being welcoming, and extending our own networks.
Audience question: Do you have any advice for negotiating a salary?
Suze: I’ve noticed with a lot of jobs these days that they write "competitive salary" – they don’t even give you a band – so you can’t even put in your expectation. I can tell you what I did for my job – I informally asked what it is I should be going for, and hoped that they would be honest and they were. So don’t feel weird about asking.
Carol: When I moved from Cambridge to Oxford my head of house was an economist and she said "think of a number and double it" which I thought was quite good. I decided to just try it – and they didn’t laugh, actually! They just said adjust it a bit.
But I do think that women don’t ask for enough – what’s the worst that can happen? They can only say no.
Suze: It’s about just having the confidence – or at least managing to fake the confidence for long enough to negotiate!
Question from the audience: I want to raise the issue of the "mum penalty" – women in business or academia taking time out to have children. What is your experience and what can the RSC do to flip that to the "people penalty"?
Carol: I think the onus is on people like me who sit on panels to say “don’t just take off those two years when you were having their child because there is a much longer knock-on when you have children.
Suze: And I think how we often assess things – we say in a 5 year period you’re supposed to have brought in X amount of money, published X amount of papers – are there ways we can change that?
Helen: This is something that the RSC has been looking at – where does your career start from and what about the break points in it?
One thing we have done recently is launch our Grants for Carers. These grants are a really good way of being able to access funds to support individuals who are going to conference and need support with their caring responsibilities. It’s not just for women – it’s for anyone who has caring responsibilities.
One thing we’ve introduced as an employer is mentoring for women before, during and after their maternity leave. The support and encouragement, and hearing how other people deal with the challenges, can be really helpful.
We still need to continue and one of our recent reports highlighted gender bias in publishing – continuing to get real life examples of those struggles and challenges is really important, and I know this is something our Inclusion and Diversity Committee are looking at.
Suze: Having different mentors for different things and even being a mentor yourself can help you reflect on different aspects of your career and how you handled something.
Audience question: I’ve been teaching for 27 years and 22 of that to girls only. I was struck with your comments about how you thought you weren’t good enough or lacked confidence. In my classroom I’ve noticed that when girls put up their hands they normally prefix it with “this is probably wrong, but…” or “I’m not sure but…”. What can we do to increase that confidence and risk taking?
Carol: Such an important point and I look at it a lot as well. We see the men and women who come into oxford and they are about the same in ability but for some reason the men will often tackle the more ambitious questions and the majority of women will regurgitate the notes and be a bit scared to really push.
I think that’s a big shame.
And I often still preface things in staff meetings with “I think…” whereas men often just say “this is the case” – why don’t I say that? I have to be much more confident in how I speak, and I think that’s what your girls are feeling.
Suze: There’s also email – I don’t know if anyone else does this – it is a very British, a very woman thing, the number of times we apologise. If someone could create an add-on that takes away every apology, every “sorry but” from an email that would be great.
We don’t want to cause a fuss. It’s 2020 – why don’t we want to cause a fuss?!
Helen: We need to teach students that getting it wrong is sometimes as good as getting it right. A teacher taught my son this at a very early age and I’m so grateful they did.
Making a pledge for International Women’s Day
Helen: My pledge says "I will listen, learn from others and share my experience". Especially as a leader, listening is really important.
I also think we should try to share our own experiences. It can be hard to talk about because it can feel like boasting. I was on a course recently with an Army Major who leads the Royal Gurkhas – he’s actually rescued people from Everest. At the end he said to me "Helen you’ve really inspired me" – gosh, what a moment!
From that moment I’ve started thinking maybe I should share my experiences more, because maybe it can actually help and be important to other people.
Carol: Something that’s really close to my heart is the chemistry culture in labs. When I entered as a researcher I found it incredibly competitive and not very supportive.
So my pledge is to leave the chemistry culture in a better place than I found it. I’m heading my new company and we have a new building in Oxford, and I’m doing that that make it a family friendly place where it is fine to have maternity or paternity breaks and we really support each other.
We’re not all competing and if somebody has a great event we all celebrate – we don’t think “it’s alright for them.
So I would like to leave it in a better place – to me that also means nominating and supporting the careers of younger women which I’ve been trying to do as well – I will stick with it!
Suze: We talk about barriers but we should also highlight how much progress has been made. It will continue to be made but we all need to be a part of that.
I suppose that’s what the hashtag #EachForEqual is for – everyone please join in.
Thank you so much for sharing, and for the questions. Let’s see what progress we’ve made by next International Women’s Day!