Why science itself needs Lessons in Chemistry

The bestselling novel ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ shows how female scientists were overlooked in the 1960s. So why does the story still feel familiar today?
glasses wearing woman with lots of charts and graphs in her head

By Claire Gillis, CEO, VMLY&R Health

It’s a damning indictment of science in 2023 that its research culture bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a recent novel set in a bygone era. Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus’s debut bestseller, tells the story of a female chemist stuck in an all-male team at a research institute where women are undermined and overlooked. The story is set in the 1960s. Sadly, we still recognize the narrative today.

This weekend marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day that celebrates female achievements in science and puts a much-needed focus on gender equality. It’s a timely opportunity to see how Bonnie Garmus’s historical fiction stands up in the real world of 2023. Unfortunately – despite the global clamour for gender equality – it’s the reality, not the novel, that pulls up short.

According to recent figures, just 33% of scientific researchers today are women. Or to put it another way, two thirds of all scientific research is driven and determined by men. In health and medical sciences, the numbers are even worse; representation of female academics is a lowly 14%, whilst their presence at the top of scientific academies is sparse.  

Workforce figures make grim reading too, revealing a gender gap across the sciences. In the US, for example, men make up 73% of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) workforce, while in healthcare – where roughly 80% of the workforce is female – just 21% of leaders and board members are women.  In Europe, women make up just 11% of the most senior research roles. Even in digital health – where start-ups with women on their executive team raise 64% more in their first round of funding – only 17% of funded companies have women on their executive team.

Inequality, much? It’s a rhetorical question.

The numbers shouldn’t surprise us. Studies consistently show a culture of scientific research that’s at odds with the pursuit of gender equality. According to the latest UNESCO Science Report (2021), career prospects for female researchers remain daunting. Women are held to tougher standards for funding applications, peer review, tenure review and job applications, and they’re typically given smaller research grants. What’s more, the abilities of female scientists are often underestimated, despite them showing faster rates of improvement in terms of writing standards and contributions to research.

It’s all very much like Lessons in Chemistry. Except this isn’t the 60s, it’s 2023.

On the face of it, the prospects for tomorrow don’t inspire confidence. Across the world, girls are significantly underrepresented in STEM subjects at school, while there’s a gender gap in career expectations, with more boys than girls favouring jobs in science. We must address that.

The implications go beyond social injustice. Underrepresentation in the development, execution and communication of scientific research can have life-changing consequences, particularly in health. Gender biases in the research workforce inevitably lead to biases in the innovations coming through. This typically produces disparities in outcomes.  In healthcare that often means lower life expectancy.

Disparities breed disparities. And they matter.

The effects of underrepresentation are often examined through the lens of race. Here, a widely acknowledged lack of diversity across the research landscape – from funding, commissioning and designing research, through to clinical trials, academia and peer review publication – has brought disparities in outcomes across all forms of disease.

In Black History Month, it’s important we acknowledge these inequities and keep pushing to eradicate the biases that created them. However, underrepresentation isn’t limited to race and ethnicity, it encompasses everything from age, gender and sexual orientation to socio-economic status, literacy and location. We simply have to be much more inclusive.

To date we’re falling uncomfortably short, not least in our mission for gender equality. If we want to make the most of technological advances that can transform health, the research that drives those new innovations must involve and represent all the populations for whom they’re intended. The current gender gap in scientific research does little to enable that. Products, services and communications naturally suffer as a result.

This isn’t to say that we’re not seeing progress. We are. Efforts to address disparities in clinical research have intensified, with wide-ranging initiatives to increase inclusion right across the piece. The spotlight on female researchers is shining brightly too. Last year, the L’Oreal-UNSECO for Women in Science International Awards recognised five eminent female scientists for their pioneering work in mRNA technology, neuroscience, embryology, infectious diseases and public health. These women, and many more like them, are much-needed role models that can only inspire the next generation.

In my own organization – in health communications, where making science meaningful is our everyday goal – we’re more determined than ever to ensure women are properly represented at all levels of the business, and across every aspect of the creative process. That commitment extends to the creative itself, where the partners we collaborate with – from end-to-end – truly represent the audiences they’re designed to reach. It’s a characteristic I see in award-winning work across our industry.

A good example of this is ‘House Rules’, Evofem’s  DTC campaign for  its hormone-free contraceptive. The commercial, which has won numerous creative awards, stars Schitt’s Creek actress Annie Murphy, and begins with the line: “Welcome to my vagina…. In here, I make the rules.” It’s a bold advert that sets out to represent women honestly and authentically. Moreover, it’s a message by women, for women: that’s the perfect house rule.

It's a far cry from the approach on display in Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel. In that respect we’ve come a very long way. But, as we assess where we’ve got to on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2023, it’s clear there’s still much further to go.

Fundamentally – whether we’re talking about medical research, health communications or everything in between – it all comes down to a simple equation: women need science, and science needs women.

That’s a Lesson in Chemistry we can all get on board with.

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