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A Good Woman (or Minority) Chemist Is Apparently Hard to Find

Each year, the American Chemical Society awards a series of national prizes for excellence in the field of chemistry. But this year’s roster was a bit troubling for some scientists.

Here, for example, is how Saiful Islam, a British materials chemist, received the news in a tweet:

Congrats 2016 Award Winners @AmerChemSociety @cenmag But where’s the #diversity? 95% male @4womeninscience @utafrith
— Prof Saiful Islam (@SaifulChemistry) January 4, 2016


Indeed, the ACS recognized a group comprised almost entirely of white men. Only five of the 67 awardees this year are women. Even fewer are minorities.

Additionally, just three of the prizes awarded to women recognized their research. The other two were “soft awards” recognizing excellence in high-school chemistry teaching in one case, and in the other a record for “encouraging women into careers in the chemical sciences.”

It would be easy to attribute this to a diversity problem within the chemical sciences writ large. In the United States at least, chemists are still disproportionately white and male. But the awardees don’t reflect the actual demographics of the American Chemical Society, where just under a third of its members are women, and 20 percent identify as non-white.

It’s sad but not all that surprising — and there’s even a name for it: It’s called the Matilda Effect.

Named for American suffragist and feminist writer Matilda J. Gage, it speaks to the tendency to undervalue the many contributions of female scientists, and to attribute their findings and achievements to male colleagues. The online group Stem Women, which seeks to increase gender diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has a comprehensive overview of the phenomenon, and the Matilda Effect remains a persistent problem — even as diversity has become a buzzword in technical communities.

To be sure, this is a situation that’s familiar to people in many non-science fields as well, but it’s particularly troubling here, given women’s increasing role and participation in research. As a 2012 study found, men continue to win a higher percentage of awards for their scholarship than would make sense based on their percentages in research communities. Women, on the other hand, tend to win awards for mentorship and teaching — so-called “soft” areas that fail to promote their own scientific or research acumen.

This creates a feedback loop, further holding back the careers of women and people of color — a particular problem for the ACS, given that their annual awards are designed to “support research” and to “promote the careers of chemists.”  This year’s crop of winners suggests that the career support and promotion accrues disproportionately to white men.

Criticism of the awards was fierce enough to prompt George M. Bodner and Valerie J. Kuck, the current and past heads of the ACS awards committee, to write a joint op-ed in Chemical and Engineering News last month:

“It is painful to admit that recent criticism of the diversity of ACS national award recipients is valid,” they conceded — although they ultimately placed the blame not on the national awards themselves, but on what they said was a scarcity of nominations for women and people of color from regional branches. “The percentage of women among nominations for national awards is roughly half of their percentage of ACS membership,” the pair wrote.

In an email message to Undark this week, Bodner suggested that reform was underway. “What we have now done is to turn to our members to find ways to increase the number of women nominated for awards,” he wrote.

Whether that will have any impact remains to be seen — and there’s some reason for skepticism: The ACS has been trying to bring some diversity to their awards for a while now. Two years ago, the organization launched a plan to diversify the number of women and minorities receiving awards, studying the issue and releasing a “gender equity” guide for chemistry departments. Since then, in advance of awards season, the ACS board sends letters to technical officers and department chairs encouraging them to increase the number of women and minorities nominated for awards.

In their joint op-ed, the ACS chairs outlined other steps that the organization is taking to achieve those goals, although this year’s cast of winners — all no doubt deserving — suggests the road ahead is uphill.  “Obviously,” they wrote, “more work has to be done.”