What did we learn from "Breaking the Barriers"?

By Rachel McLachlan

Earlier this month the Royal Society of Chemistry published new research that shows why talented women are leaving careers in the chemical sciences before they reach their full potential.

We are very proud to have supported the RSC team on this project. Firetail designed and conducted the research and analysis, and shaped the recommendations of the final report.

The project included a major survey, interviews and focus groups to gather insights from across the community into the barriers facing women in the chemical sciences. 

Breaking The Barriers describes why women remain significantly underrepresented in senior academic posts.

The key barriers to change include funding structures, academic culture, work/life balance and perceptions of roles and priorities, as well as bullying and harassment.

From Nature to the Sunday Times, the report has been widely covered.  You can download the full report here

It is refreshing to see a report that doesn’t attempt to fix women by sending them to leadership training and workshops, or telling them to be more resilient. Women do not lack ambition or inspiration.  We are tired of being marginalised.

Nazira Karodia, Dean of Faculty of Engineering and Science, University of Wolverhampton

Breaking the Barriers builds on our work with the RSC earlier in the year on their Diversity Landscape in the Chemical Sciences report. That report presented a snapshot of the current state of diversity and inclusion in the chemical sciences. Based on available data, it highlighted the complexity of the problem across a number of lines including mental health, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. Further improvement is needed in all of these areas. 

The RSC aims to improve conditions for all underrepresented groups. The research highlighted the crucial role that data and evidence play in defining the issue and shaping the response. The focus on tackling ‘gender first’ came about because of the clear evidence.

Although the chemical science community has made progress on gender equality, it remains a persistent problem.

Four practical lessons

More and more organisations are asking tough questions of themselves when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Changing policy and practice in any sector is hard. Tackling systemic barriers to equality is not an overnight job. Lack of innovation is often not the biggest problem.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution but we do see some common themes. Here are four practical lessons for organisations considering how to tackle these issues: 

1.     No leadership commitment, no accountability, no progress

When progress stalls on pushing forward for diversity its usually because it has not been prioritised. It is a question of leadership, engagement and follow through; rarely a lack of ideas. 

You can’t just bolt diversity onto an HR agenda and hope for the best. Successful diversity and inclusion initiatives require support and senior level commitment to listen and learn. Leading by example matters. 

2.     Be clear about the role of data to drive action 

Focus on building your evidence base. Be clear about the role of data and how you will use it to help define the problem, prioritise your response and track progress. Then measure what matters rather than what you can just count. 

3.     Create ownership in your community

Be deliberate. Establish a plan and a process and stick to it. Jumping straight into a new set of initiatives or programmes will often make you feel that you are doing something but there is no quick fix. Work hard to draw on, recognise and learn from the ‘lived experience’ within your community. The design of your approach needs to reflect the diversity of your people - be they members, service users or clients. Engage and include everyone appropriately in identifying solutions. 

4.     Big change, small change

Focus on practical actions that can help people translate the change that needs to happen into everyday behaviours. Small change can have a big effect on an individual or group. Visible change helps create accountability. 

Find out more  

We’d really like to hear your thoughts about these issues. If you want to share your experience or find out more about how your organisation might tackle similar questions, then please do contact Rachel McLachlan on 0207 148 0910.