Monday 5 August 2013

A Chemical Imbalance

Professor Polly Arnold of the University of Edinburgh department of chemistry is launching a campaign to understand and improve gender equality in science titled "A Chemical Imbalance" which the BBC have written a story about. She's taken Rosalind Franklin award funding and used it to produce a free movie and eBook, hosted on the Chemical Imbalance web site. Full disclosure, I'm knackered and preoccupied with work right now so I've not had a chance to check out either in any depth. However the campaign clued me in on an Edinburgh science story that feels familiar (perhaps via the Surgeon's Hall museum) but I never learned about in any depth: the Edinburgh Seven.

The Seven were a group of women, led by Sophia Jex-Blake, who banded together so that they could be allowed to study for degrees at the venerable old University of Edinburgh medical school in the late 1800s. Despite their successful studies, performed in the face of opposition from science notables like Alexander Crum Brown - later president of the RSC - and an actual riot about their anatomy exams, the university refused to allow them to graduate. Most of them ultimately went on to be granted medical degrees by more progressive institutions, and blazed a trail for future equality in education and medicine. You can read more about them in the eBook on the site, or if that's too long, Wikipedia and this blog.

With a wonderful sense of cosmic justice, Professor Arnold is now the Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry, while Professor Lesley Yellowlees was not only the first female head of chemistry at Edinburgh, but is now the first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a position once held by Crum Brown himself.

Such overt discrimination has waned in much of the world, but the gender balance in the sciences is still ridiculous. The chart on the site shows the ridiculous drop-off rate between undergraduate, where it's nearly equal, and professor, where it's ten to one. Worse, as Prof. Yellowlees relates in the BBC article, outward contempt for female scientists is still depressingly extant. I'm not sure what I can do to help, but passing it along, reading the book and watching the documentary seem like a good start.

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