International Women's Day Interview: Lesley Yellowlees

In the final interview of the International Women’s Day series, I speak to Lesley Yellowlees, recent President of the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) and current Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. Lesley plays a pivotal role in promoting the STEM subjects and addressing the underrepresentation of women in science and all in all is an incredibly inspirational woman.

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Mar 06, 2015
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A little about Lesley Yellowlees…

Lesley completed both her BSc in Chemical Physics and her PhD in Inorganic Electrochemistry at the University of Edinburgh (UK). Following research positions in Brisbane (Australia) and Glasgow (UK) she returned to an academic position in Edinburgh in 1986 and gained a personal chair in Inorganic Electrochemistry in 2005. Having completed five years as Head of the School of Chemistry at Edinburgh she took up the position of Director of EaStCHEM (the joint research school of the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews [UK]) in 2010. Lesley is currently Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and in 2012 became the first woman President of the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK). Lesley has been awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to science, a CBE in 2014 for services to chemistry, and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (UK) in 2012.Lesley is a passionate advocate of addressing the gender gap in science, which was a focal point of her work as President of the RSC, in addition to engaging with the public to strengthen the case for increased support for science.

What inspired you to embark on a career in chemistry?

I enjoyed science hugely at school and I’ve always been able to get science. I think when you get a subject then it will automatically motivate you. I liked the practical aspect of it and I always liked that it was a subject that you could get 100% in, not that I ever did, but it was possible. Some people were very good at English, but they could never get anywhere near 100% in it. I accept that I’m competitive; I like to do well, so I liked that aspect of it. I liked being able to problem solve, I liked taking data, working with it and trying to understand it, so I felt that made me more suited to science and engineering.

Do you feel that women are currently underrepresented in science?

Well yes, the numbers tell you that, particularly at the senior levels. It is discipline specific so at school and undergraduate level, the biological sciences do very well, but if you look at engineering or computer science, then they do very badly. If you’re starting off from a poor base, then you never get anywhere. Whatever subject you are talking about, if you plot the percentage of women involved against stages of their career, taking it right from GCSE level right the way to professorial level, in every subject area there is a huge negative slope. We lose women through their career and that is obviously not good news.

You said in 2012 that the UK was decades behind the USA in terms of the representation of women in senior academic positions. What do you think is the root cause of this disparity and have measures been put into place to address this?

The USA has been working at this for a long time. For example, you see Michelle Obama meeting with senior women, so the issue is more high profile than it is here.That’s not to say that we can’t do the same kind of thing here in the UK, but over in the USA they have had one consistent body dedicated to progressing women in science for over 40 years. Here, we might fund somebody to promote women in science for a bit and then stop the funding and then we’ll start it again, so we have to re-christen it with a new name. I don’t think the US has got it completely right either, as the senior positions aren’t a true reflection of the population i.e., 50/50 but they’re a damn sight further on than we are.

To address this problem you have got to raise the profile and put role models in place. You’ve got to be able to say to people that it is perfectly possible to have a good career in science and engineering. There is nothing to stop you or hold you back. For the people who have reached senior positions, it is our responsibility to ensure that processes, procedure, culture and support etc. are all in place to help women break through and stick with their subject.

Do you think that it falls to the government to address this disparity?

I think it would be too easy to say that it is solely the government’s responsibility and to shove all the blame on to them. We have got to take some of it ourselves, the responsibility is everybody’s. It is everybody’s job to talk about it and buy into the desire to make it happen and change the culture. The responsibility is shared between universities, industry, charities, research councils and government – it belongs to everybody.

Do you feel there is a lack of female role models that young women can look up to?

I think a lack of role models simply goes with the lack of numbers. In chemistry, if you look at the percentage of female professors in academia, it is 8%. If only 8% of your professors are female and 92% are men, then people coming through are bound to have far greater exposure to men than they are to women. Even if it is not a conscious thing, unconsciously you are aware that you are not seeing as many women. I think that has an impact.

Do you think the gendering of labour along traditional lines is responsible for limiting women’s opportunity to progress to the higher levels of academia?

I think that’s one area that we have to look at, but I think there are all sorts of reasons that we are losing women in this “leaky pipeline,” as they call it. Undoubtedly childcare etc. does still primarily fall on the woman. Of course, we cannot change that entirely as it will always be women bearing the child, so we have to put in place support to ensure that it is easy for them to come back once they’ve had time off. There are lots of reasons they may have taken time out, to be with their child or to support elderly relatives and they need to be supported during this time and when they return to work.

During your time as president of the RSC, you dedicated a lot of your time to promoting women in the STEM subjects. What progress did you make in this area?

The reason I did this is because I was the first female president in 170-odd years. I was asked what did I want to make the focus of my presidency and there was a lot of attention on the fact that they had, at last, chosen a female president. I wanted to take this opportunity to make the underrepresentation of women in STEM subjects a high profile issue. In terms of the progress we have made, well, it is not all down to me, but there is now a focus on why we’re losing so many women from science and engineering. That is very important because we need science and engineering skills to be able to deliver what we need in this very advanced age we live in. Science and engineering skills are very important in enabling economic growth and I think that’s why the government has become very interested in it.

We are now fortunate in that it has become a focus and we can all work together to make this issue more high profile.We can also look to see what we can do, big or small, to help.We can look at the support we can give to women to allow them to come back into the workplace. For example, a young Edinburgh colleague recently came to me and explained that when she attends a conference, it’s not always convenient to bring their children along, and asked if the university could start a fund so that she could cover the costs of childcare while she is away. This is an example of a creative way forward. You have to listen to what people want and then see how best you can implement that, because in this case, what I needed when I was bringing up my family is not the same as what other people might need.

Do you plan to continue outreach in this area?

Absolutely. Once you embark on something and put your whole heart into it, you can’t switch it off just because you no longer have that high profile role. I’ve met a lot of people and they now associate me with trying to make it better for people. I still see that I’ve got a huge job to do because we’ve not cracked it by any means. I’m still determined to do it, so I still chair the Inclusion and Diversity Board at the Royal Society of Chemistry and the 175 Faces project that I initiated. The Society is 175 years old next year and the project is collecting 175 diverse faces to show diversity across chemistry and to tell an interesting story. People like reading others’ stories because everybody is human and everybody has in interesting story to tell. I would encourage everyone to read about the 175 Faces project on the RSC website as there are some really inspiring stories there and I’m proud to be associated with it. I certainly won’t be giving up.

It sounds like there are still measures in place at the RSC to improve the representation of women, is that the case?

The current president and the whole RSC has committed towards doing something about this. It’s not something that can be done in one president’s two year term because you can’t change a whole culture in two years. Once the culture has changed, it won’t be a talking point anymore and how wonderful would that be? So that is the end goal and the current president is backing it 100%. Inclusion and diversity underpins everything that the RSC does. You will continue to see it spoken about and we will continue to deliver high profile activity. I have had a wonderful career in chemistry and I would like others to have that as well, why shouldn’t they?

The theme of International Women’s Day in 2015 is Make it Happen. What advice would you have for budding scientist to ‘make it happen’ for them?

The main piece of advice I would give is to believe in yourself, because if you don’t believe in yourself, why should anybody else? If you believe in yourself, you can go really far. Of course you need support, but have it from the inside as well.

Go to the profile of Hannah Coaker

Hannah Coaker

Contributor, Future Science Group

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