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Girls & Women

This Scottish Professor Has Launched a Network To Tackle the Loneliness of Being a Woman At the Top in Science

Polly Arnold

It can be lonely at the top. 

It can be particularly lonely if you’re a woman in science, according to a group of senior scientists in Scotland who are leading the charge against sexism in STEM subjects. 

Professor Polly Arnold, who holds the Crum Brown chair of chemistry at Edinburgh University, has long been a powerful spokesperson for getting young women into science careers.

It’s a goal worth fighting for. Currently, only 10% of top jobs in Scottish science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are held by women.

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A serious fall-out of the tiny percentage of women in top STEM jobs is that women find themselves the sole female voice in the conversation, the only female face in a room full of men. In smaller institutions, that can be extremely isolating.

Now, Arnold is tackling that isolation with Sci Sisters , a new “sisterhood” designed to support women who get to the top of their field and look around to realise they’re alone. 

According to Arnold, the problems are societal rather than with individuals. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome. 

“We have to bring out the feminist in everyone, whatever their gender, stop feminism being a dirty word,” Arnold told Global Citizen. 

“Then we encourage everyone who speaks out when they see sexism. And keep working at it, even though people get bored of being reminded about their biases. It takes a long time for society to change, as people are, on average, scared of change. But it can happen.”

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As part of joining the network, women are offered company, advice, specific training, and the chance to speak to and encourage young scientists at festivals and career events. 

The key to Sci Sisters is an interactive map. Every pin in the map represents a female scientist or engineer in a senior position who has already joined the network. 

Arnold says she is well supported at Edinburgh, as she works in a department “where an appreciation of the benefits of diversity is really ingrained in our culture.”

She adds: “But, often, when I step outside and sit on panels, or speak at conferences, for example, I find it a shock as it’s such a change. But like others who find themselves in these situations, I now have a stock of replies to the comments that come from the few remaining dinosaurs.” 

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Sci Sisters is being funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry in an effort to tackle the overwhelming lack of women in STEM careers — a vital step in solving some of the biggest problems that the world is facing today. 

According to Professor Lesley Yellowlees, who became the first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2012, tackling issues such as global warming, lack of clean water, and famine “is going to need everybody to pitch in.” 

“If only 10% of the population is engaged at the senior level, then think how many people are missing from that,” Yellowlees told the BBC

“We already know that if you’re going to crack a problem quickly — and crack it efficiently and effectively — then you need a diverse team to deal with that.”