“One of my old bosses asked me why I didn't go straight into lab management but of course, you don't always get that opportunity straight away. In interviews for the technician position, I've definitely been asked many times why I didn't stay in research, why I was happy to take a pay cut and start at the bottom as a technician.
“To me, I think all this experience is worth it and has definitely helped me towards my role now. Having worked as a technician really gives you a full understanding of what it takes and the difficulties of doing the work, so now when I manage technicians, it has given me that understanding and I can suggest things that are more practical."
Eileen feels her decision has more than paid off, giving her the perfect skillset for research laboratory management. Her position now keeps her connected to the subject she loves, playing an essential role in answering some of chemistry’s biggest questions.
“I always had that drive to move up to lab manager but I really appreciate the time I spent as a technician and all the skills and knowledge that I gained from the senior staff.
“I like the fact that I can still work in the lab. Although not doing research, I have influence in what instruments we buy, how we run the place, how the laboratories are managed. I think those skills really come from the experience I gained both in my time doing research and as a technician.”
Lack of role models
On gender equality in chemistry, Eileen is optimistic, but acknowledges progress is slow.
“I think we are driving towards the right direction but things are happening very slowly. I understand these issues aren't just in chemistry. It's getting more attention these days, there's a lot more work that's being done.”
Having experienced academic and industrial environments, as well as laboratory management, Eileen believes the lack of role models can make those earlier on in their career feel uneasy.
For me it's about everyone having the same opportunities to do what they want to do
“The first thing would be the work environment being male dominated, especially in academia. At undergraduate level, it's almost 50:50, but as that moves up to PhD and post-doc level then the ratio starts to shift.
“As a student, you look at that environment and think, why are there so few female professors? Is that because there are difficulties getting to that position?
“Another thing is the lack of support for things such as childcare and maternity leave. Of course now there is shared parental leave but a lot of male colleagues still don't want to take that. If a man is not comfortable taking flexible working hours or shared parental leave then it puts women in the state of mind that if they want to match up and compete, then they will have to work those extra hours as well.
“From my personal experience, one of my technicians is currently on maternity leave and has decided not to come back because of the cost of childcare. Working as a technician, her pay wouldn't cover those expenses.”
Responsibility to act
As well as concerted action from organisations and institutions to make structural changes to the system, Eileen believes everyone, particularly those in senior positions, has a responsibility to call out poor behaviour.
“One solution is for senior management to show support of their female colleagues and speak out if they see behaviour that is unacceptable. They should act upon it rather than just laugh it off or ignore it. That will set an example and eventually change the culture of the workplace.
“The other things that I think that would definitely help would be for organisations to provide more support in terms of childcare. I think that would benefit not just female employees but anyone who is a parent. Providing childcare near the workplace and flexible working hours for example.
“For me it's about everyone having the same opportunities to do what they want to do and there shouldn't be any setbacks just because of their gender.”
Follow your dreams
Despite some of the issues raised in our Breaking the barriers report, Eileen’s message to those considering a career in chemistry is overwhelmingly positive.
“I would say definitely go for it. My mum told me when I was picking a subject for university that I should pick something I'm passionate about, rather than something that would just lead me to a job. I'm always grateful for that advice because three years is a long time to stick at something – you've got to love it. It's that passion that will get you through the hard times and when you struggle.
“So if you have a passion for chemistry or the chemical sciences, I would say just do it. Just follow your dreams and let everyone else fight for equality alongside you.”
Dr Eileen Cheng was featured in our video as part of the campaign surrounding our Breaking the barriers report into women’s retention and progression in chemistry. Read the report and share the findings using the digital pack on our website.