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Diversity and inclusion

Women in electrochemistry put science first

09 Jun 2022 Sponsored by The Electrochemical Society

A 50-strong team of female guest editors has produced a focus issue of the Journal of The Electrochemical Society that highlights the scientific contributions of women in electrochemistry


Cartoon of woman scientist in electrochemistry
Open to all: organizations like the Electrochemical Society can help young women to feel like they belong in the field (Courtesy: iStock/PCH-Vector)

The history of modern science is full of talented women whose research achievements have in some way been overlooked. One obvious example is Rosalind Franklin, whose meticulous X-ray analysis of DNA strands has generally been sidelined in the story of Francis Crick’s and James Watson’s elucidation of the molecule’s structure. Another is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who many people believe should have shared the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics for her observations and insights that revealed the existence of pulsars.

Even today, female scientists are less likely to be recognized for their contributions than their male counterparts. While more women are choosing to study science at undergraduate level, a recent analysis by Lokman Meho at the American University of Beirut revealed that worldwide only 30% of professors in science and technology are women, and that between 2016 and 2020 only 19% of the most prestigious research prizes were awarded to female scientists. Such imbalances at the top of the field are important, since they deprive aspiring young women of the role models that can help them believe they can build a successful career in science.

It is important to recognize the huge amount of work done by women in scientific research.

Ingrid Milošev, Jožef Stefan Institute, Slovenia

Providing greater recognition and visibility for the contributions of women was one key motivation for a recent focus issue of the Electrochemical Society’s flagship publication, the Journal of The Electrochemical Society (JES). “It is important to recognize the huge amount of work done by women in scientific research,” says Ingrid Milošev, head of physical and organic chemistry at the Jožef Stefan Institute in Slovenia and one of the issue’s guest editors. “The role of women in some leading positions has been understated, and we need to show that we are perfectly capable of taking on responsibilities that we should have taken already.”

The idea for the “Women in Electrochemistry” focus issue emerged from ongoing discussions about diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) at the Electrochemical Society (ECS). “The ECS has been committed to diversity for many years, and in 2019 it formalized its DEI statement,” says Alice Suroviec, an associate editor of the JES and Dean of the School of Mathematics and Natural Science at Berry College in the US. “We thought the focus issue would be a good way to launch it out into the community.”

Conversations about diversity often feel like a US story, and we tried very intentionally to include people from all parts of the world.

Alice Suroviec, Berry College, US

The focus issue has been driven by a 50-strong team of female guest editors, who together represent a broad scope of research fields as well as different geographic locations. “Conversations about diversity often feel like a US story, and we tried very intentionally to include people from all parts of the world,” says Suroviec. “We also wanted to highlight the diversity issues that can arise in industry as well as in the academic sector.”

Those guest editors have played a crucial role in the success of the issue, reaching out to female colleagues with similar research interests and backgrounds. The response has been impressive, with more than 160 papers published to date. “There was a real energy and momentum behind this focus issue,” says Janine Mauzeroll, a technical editor for JES and a lead researcher in organic and bioelectrochemistry at McGill University in Canada. “It was clear that the guest editors were working hard to reach out to their networks, and positioning the issue to focus on the science has generated a really positive response.”

Positioning the issue to focus on the science has generated a really positive response.

Janine Mauzeroll, McGill University, Canada

Indeed, “science first” is the mantra followed by many women who decide to pursue a research career. Donna Strickland, who in 2018 was only the third woman to win the Nobel prize for physics, was taken aback at the amount of media attention that focused on her gender rather than her scientific achievements. “I don’t see myself as a woman in science. I see myself as a scientist,” she said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. “I thought the big story would be the science.”

In that spirit, most of the articles in the focus issue are scientific papers reporting new research results, with the only stipulation being that the primary author or co-author had to be a woman. “What matters is the science, and we want to be evaluated based on the quality of our research,” says Mauzeroll.  “In the process we might help the policy issue, which would be wonderful, but we are scientists, not policymakers.”

Photo of women who have helped to higlight the research of women in electrochemistry

Importantly, the technical merit of each article was assessed in exactly the same way as any other submission to the journal. “Scientific rigour is the most important factor for publishing in JES,” insists Olga Marina, one the journal’s associate editors and chief scientist for energy processes and materials at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Technical editor Sannakaisa Virtanen, professor for surface science and corrosion at the Friedrich-Alexander-University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, agrees: “It’s really important that we used the same criteria for peer review. We don’t want to have this feeling that we only get something because we are women.”

Scientific rigour is the most important factor for publishing in JES.

Olga Marina, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Contributions cover the full range of electrochemical research, ranging from batteries and energy storage through to organic and bioelectrochemistry. Meanwhile, some of the articles offer a more personal perspective on the challenges faced by female electrochemists in different workplaces and geographic locations. “The issue has a strong backbone of electrochemistry, but it also has personal stories that people can dive into,” says Suroviec. “Readers have enjoyed finding out about the experiences of other women in the field and in different parts of the world, and it has offered some interesting insights for people who aren’t women in science.”

Changing dynamics

Most of the guest editors remember the sensation of being the only woman in a research lab or at a scientific conference, but over the last couple of decades they have seen the balance shift as more female students choose to study science and engineering subjects at undergraduate level. “In my experience electrochemistry seems to be one of more open and welcoming scientific disciplines,” says Suroviec. “Part of the reason for that I think it that it is multidisciplinary, and you can come at it from many different avenues. It’s a team science.”

It’s really important that we used the same criteria for peer review. We don’t want to have this feeling that we only get something because we are women.

Sannakaisa Virtanen, Friedrich-Alexander-University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany

As with many other research fields, however, the proportion of women who progress to senior positions remains troublingly low. The so-called “leaky pipeline” is a well-documented phenomenon in which women progressively drop out of the scientific system, resulting in fewer female scientists with the power and influence to bring about change that will benefit younger generations.

That gradual attrition is particularly evident in disciplines where there is strong female representation in the student cohort: in chemistry, for example, more than half of all undergraduate degrees in the US are now awarded to women, but data collected for the 2016/17 academic year by the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity initiative showed that female chemists accounted for only 20% of faculty positions and less than 16% of full professors.

Many different factors affect each personal decision to leave the scientific profession, but one obvious reason is the opposing forces of work and family. “No matter how much we love the science, it’s really challenging for any young researcher to secure a position, work abroad, apply for projects, and publish the best papers,” points out Milošev. “It’s very difficult to establish a relationship or start a family at that time, and many women choose to take a stable job that will make their life less complicated.”

Alleviating the pressures on young scientists would benefit both men and women alike, but surveys of students and academics suggest that female scientists are more likely to value a reasonable work–life balance. Plenty of evidence also shows that women tend to shoulder more responsibility for childcare and other domestic duties, with the Covid pandemic highlighting once again that it was generally female partners who were expected to compromise on their working life to look after children and supervise their home learning.

“Women will not want to become an electrochemist if they feel that 24 hours of their day must be dedicated to this job,” says Mauzeroll. “For students to choose this career path they have to be able to see themselves living this life.”

Entrenched attitudes and dynamics in the workplace also play their part, even if overt discrimination is largely – although not entirely – a thing of the past. Small, subtle and often unknowing biases can accumulate to make women feel undervalued and isolated in male-dominated environments, with surveys of female scientists and engineers citing issues such as double standards, uneven distribution of funding and resources, and a constant struggle to have their voices heard.

One common complaint is that ideas presented by women can often be ignored, particularly when they are in junior positions, while the same suggestion from a male colleague is more likely to be noticed and taken onboard.

Improving the opportunities and prospects for young female scientists is a strong motivation for many of the women who were involved in the focus issue. According to Mauzeroll, collecting together the scientific output of female electrochemists offers a powerful message to students who are making decisions about their future career. “It’s important to highlight the great work that’s being done by women in electrochemistry,” she says. “It’s a way for people to recognize themselves and think that they could pursue a career in the field.”

Diversity matters

While this issue has focused on women in electrochemistry, both the ECS and the JES editors are mindful that other minorities in science are disadvantaged by many of the same issues that affect women. “In the US there is a strong push against gender bias, but within the ECS there is a much broader discussion around DEI,” comments Mauzeroll. “In the future we hope to launch other focus issues that highlight the contribution and experiences of other underrepresented groups in the field.” Indeed, the latest issue of the society’s Interface magazine, guest edited by Suroviec, offers a more general perspective on the importance of diversity in science.

Addressing issues around diversity is particularly important in a discipline like electrochemistry, where talented scientists and engineers are in high demand to solve some of the most urgent challenges facing our planet. “The job market is really tight at the moment, and we don’t have enough PhD students or post-docs,” says Marina. “In the imminent hydrogen economy, electrochemistry will play a significant role in hydrogen production. For anyone competent and creative, the opportunities are there.”

Mauzeroll agrees that electrochemistry needs to attract more young people into the field: “It is the students who will come up with the big new ideas that will push electrochemistry forward. Hopefully this issue will make them feel like it’s really cool, really important, and they will choose electrochemistry for their future career.”

More generally, organizations like the ECS can play an important role in helping young women to feel like they belong in the field. “The ECS makes it easy for young people to become part of the community,” says Virtanen. “Even when I was a PhD student I was asked if I wanted to get involved in the activities of the Society. It helps when you feel that more established members of your professional community are interested in your opinions.”

The society’s twice-yearly meetings also create a strong sense of community, offering a valuable source of support and advice to women throughout their scientific careers. “The ECS provides access to a really strong network of people,” says Suroviec. “You can get an outside perspective on whatever your issue might be, ask other people about your experiences, and get some feedback to help tackle any problems. The opportunity to talk candidly is really important to give women confidence that their issue is real and that it can be solved.”

Milošev, as a guest editor from outside North America, says that being involved with the focus issue has brought her closer to her female colleagues in other parts of the world. “I love the connections we have made through this focus issue, and it really makes me feel part of a community,” she says. “It is really useful to build this network of contacts with the authors and the reviewers. We are connected, and we all depend on each other.”

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