Guest Bloggers

Women in Computational and Theoretical Chemistry by Jacqueline Hargis

Jacqueline Hargis is a scientist who recently wrote to tell me about her experience as a woman in the predominantly male field of computational chemistry. She was on her way to a large conference and offered to report back on what she found there . . . here’s what she had to say!


From July 17-22 2011 (when all the cool kids were finishing TAM 9), the World Association of Theoretical and Computational Chemists (WATOC) held their triennial meeting in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. This was the second time I had the fantastic opportunity to attend one of these global meetings, the first being three years ago in Sydney, Australia. Following the recent attention feminism has received in the skeptical and atheist movements I was curious about the differences amongst the computational and theoretical chemistry community.

It is a common practice at many scientific conferences, particularly for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, to communicate research in the form of a poster presentation. During a poster session, a large quantity of people are presenting simultaneously and the remaining conference participants wander through the aisles of posters asking questions and gaining information about an individual’s work from the presenter. At WATOC in Sydney, I had a couple male delegates ask some fairly inappropriate questions during my poster presentation. Three years have passed and I can pleasantly report that nothing like this occurred during my poster presentation during WATOC 2011. Is this a sign of an evolving field? I hope so.

During this conference, I was shocked by the large quantity of women in attendance. In fact, it was the most equal ratio at any computational chemistry conference I have attended, local or international. This could be attributed to several factors. The conference was based in Europe so it is possible that more women are active in this community than conferences I have attended in the United States and Australia. Another factor is that this conference had broader interests than some of the other conferences I have attended which have been focused on computational quantum chemistry and theoretical development, fields that are predominantly still a boys club. Whatever the contributing factors, the large quantity of women was obvious to many participants I spoke to about this. During conferences, much of the work is done over evening libations. Contradicting the ratio seen during the day, I was one of the only females present out at night, if not the only one. No inappropriate invitations were extended to me during late night hours, including elevator rides and hikes up the stairs.

One of the largest feminist issues in computational chemistry is the lack of women as faculty members at universities. I discussed these issues with several women faculty on three different continents and received some similar conclusions from each. One of the primary reasons women aren’t obtaining high profile jobs at research universities is simply due to lack of application. So few women apply for these positions compared to the male applicant pool, due to sheer statistics it is less likely for qualified women applicants to be present. Another issue is that many women are pursuing graduate degrees including PhDs, but less continue to academic post-doctoral positions and even less pursue positions as faculty members. The most common explanation seems to be that academic tenure is rarely achieved before 35 years of age. Many women do not want to wait that long to have children or they don’t want to take time away from their careers until academic tenure is attained. The women who I spoke with who are faculty members with children all spoke of their incredibly supportive husbands that take the backseat to their careers. Many women scientists are not fortunate enough to have a strong support system, possibly contributing to the low volume of women pursuing careers in the chemical academic community.

Hopefully, this post will enlighten some people as to successes and problems amongst the computational chemistry academic community (and probably the generalized scientific academic community). After some progress has occurred over the last few years, hopefully the number of women in the field will continue to increase as well as the respect they receive. With only two of twelve plenary lectures executed by women at WATOC 2011, I think there is still room for growth.

About the Author
Jacqueline, a true Floridian, wandered up to the tundra of Athens, Georgia to receive her PhD in computational quantum chemistry. Returning to her roots, she is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in Tampa in the field of computational biochemistry investigating the wonders of penicillin-like drugs. When she is not slaving over the computer, her varied interests include international travel, Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing, fancy food, (American) football, and Belgian quadrupels.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. That was a really interesting read; as a chem phd candidate (though not in comp/theory) at UW in Seattle, I never would’ve guessed this was a problem in the field. My TA for the computational class I had to take was a fifth-year female student, and another girl I knew in that division went on to a post-doc at Stanford after graduation. Upon thinking about it, though, even though a good number of the grad students are women, they all work for male faculty because that’s all there is.

  2. Good informative post.
    I incline to agree with the assertion that the combination of the age needed for academic tenure plus the wanting of children might determine more women to stop from progressing further.
    That might be related with the biological clocks and might become worst in time if we need to be older to accomplish certain academic function.
    A solution to balance this might be, as posted, a more involved partner that is willing to help out.
    Short of changing our entire educational/economical system I’m not sure we have a long term or complete fix to this imbalance in representation.

    1. It’s sad that if you have children a womans career prospects seem to rely so much on their choice of partner. I favour paying slightly higher taxes to fund enabling programs so that isn’t the case and any parent has the option of being single. It happens here in Europe with disabled access to buildings and like those changes that are a legal requirement, work creches and childcare cost lots of money and like disabled access the investment is worth it morally.

  3. As a (male) physicist in Norway I have gotten a similar impression of the situation in academia. But at least a lot of women do get scientific degrees in the traditionally male-dominated sciences now. Ids estimate about a third of the new students here are female. On the research group I’m on the ratio is about 50/50.

    I’m probably “preaching to the choir” here, but a gender-mixed as well as an international/multicultural workplace is the absolute best environment to work in. I am glad the silly myth that women are bad at math (and therefore physics) is finally dyeing.

    1. Damn spell-checker. “dieing” not “dyeing”. Although colourful isn’t bad either :)

  4. What the heck are Belgian quadrupels?

    But on-topic:
    I’ve always wondered what it is about the men that women in academia date/marry that makes them so unwilling to be the primary caretaker of the kids? Could it be due to the fact that even IF a woman reaches a certain level within her field of science, she’s still making about as much money as a man who’s about one or two levels below (i.e. from a financial p.o.v. it’s not as appealing as a woman raising the kids while the husband climbs up in academia)?

  5. First of all, a Belgian quadrupel is a type of beer. My favorite is St. Bernardus Abt 12. If that is your thing, try it.

    Exarch, I think the question you pose is a good one about what makes them unwilling. It is possible that it is financial, as it takes a while before academia can be relatively lucrative, and this could possibly never happen. Naturally, the unwillingness for the man to take care of the children is situational in the couple’s relationship (and not always the case).

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