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Fields & Applications Spectroscopy, Pharma & Biopharma

Leaning In

I think personality-wise, analytical chemistry sits well with some of the general characteristics that women tend to have. I teach at a small school where we have no graduate program, just undergraduates, and we have a higher percentage of men versus women in the college, yet there are slightly more women than men in my various degree programs. I think that in general – at least in the USA right now – the women who are applying have higher, better academic records, and that, if anything, it’s harder to find the men to balance that out. But I also know there are other areas of science where that is not the case.

I’ve been exposed to a lot of different areas of the industry, and in some areas I was the only woman in a big group. I worked for an instrument company before coming to academia and that is much more male-dominated, but even there I was confident enough in my abilities: “OK. They hired me, so they must think I can do this.” The people I worked with were some of my best early mentors and are some of my strongest supporters now, even since I left the instrument industry and came to academia. I’ve worked in some very good environments, even early in my career, but I realize not all women are so lucky – and it shouldn’t be down to luck.

We have had more men attending ‘women and diversity’ sessions at SciX than we did initially. The trick is finding a balance between discussing topics in a productive and positive manner, and tackling the misconception that it’s a “male-bashing session”. Our Women in Spectroscopy group started as a subset of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy, and has broadened into under-represented groups within analytical science. For some of the younger women in the field, it can be hard – you can’t just go to your male boss with questions like: how do you deal with having kids at the same time you’re going through a tenure review? As a woman, how do you balance a professional job in which you’re expected to travel, with a young family at home? You’re going to get more ‘real life’ answers from a woman. Though of course, the balance of how families function these days makes it easier for women; I travel way more than my husband does and he is supportive of that.

The group had some online discussions about ‘Lean in’, written by Sheryl Sandberg, the woman who was COO at Google. She suggests that women are often hesitant to take chances – that it’s part of our personality. All sorts of studies have been done about this: men assume that their skillset is better than it is and will take a chance, whereas women tend to think, “I don’t have quite enough experience, I’m going to wait a little while longer”. She thinks we’re hurting women by taking that general philosophy and that we shouldn’t be afraid to take a risk and do something new. That’s how things have gone with my career – I have taken chances on certain things I didn’t think were that big, but when I look back I think, wow, that was quite a leap!

What I do and why I love it:

I help shape the next generation of scientists. I love it because I am both a teacher in the classroom and a learner in research – it’s the perfect balance.

The Top 50 Women Power List…

There are definitely some challenges unique to women – so why not? Hopefully, it will recognize people who are doing really great things but wouldn’t have been on the list otherwise.

A piece of advice….

If you find you’re not in a supportive environment with the specific people that you work with, find another one – whether that’s a great group of people like those at the Society for Applied Spectroscopy, at a conference, or at a more personal community outreach. Just make sure you’re finding support somewhere.

Mary Kate Donais is Professor in the Department of Chemistry at St Anselm College, New Hampshire, USA, and has worked as an analytical chemist in federal government, industrial, and academic settings. She is Chair of 2016’s SciX conference.

Towards Meritocracy

Making Great Strides

Leaning In

An Ongoing Effort

On Balance

Beyond the ‘Old Boys Club’ 

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About the Author
Mary Kate Donais

Mary Kate Donais is Professor in the Department of Chemistry at St Anselm College, New Hampshire, USA, and has worked as an analytical chemist in federal government, industrial, and academic settings. She is Chair of 2016’s SciX conference. 

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