Women in STEM: Interview with Professor Lesley Yellowlees, first female president of Royal Society of Chemistry

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Last year, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) elected their first female president in 170 years. Professor Lesley Yellowlees is presently Vice Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and will begin her two-year presidency at RSC this summer.

Prof Yellowlees intends to help promote science, specifically chemistry, when she steps into her role as president. She thinks that science and engineering is currently the way forward for the UK to emerge from the economic crisis, so she hopes to take advantage of her capacity to do something about it. However, as the first female president, Prof Yellowlees aspires to use that position to contribute to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) community.

“As I am going to be the first woman president of the RSC in 170 years, it would be a wasted opportunity if I didn’t use that to help promote women in chemistry.”

So what does Prof Yellowlees plan to do? She told me that the Royal Society of Edinburgh has just released a report called ‘Tapping all our Talents. Women in STEM: a Strategy for Scotland’, and they have already asked Prof Yellowlees to work with them on the report.

“One of the things [suggested in the report] is that they are in favour of awards such as the Athena Swan award. I certainly have been involved with the Athena Swan from early on…so I’m now encouraging all the schools in science and engineering [at Edinburgh university] to see if they can get an Athena Swan soon.”

The Athena Swan award is given to institutions of higher education that has “good practice on recruiting, retaining and promoting women in SET (science, engineering and technology)”.

During our conversation, I mentioned to Prof Yellowlees about a recent study that feminine role models may deter girls from STEM fields. She said that the bigger problem does not lie in girls not being interested enough in STEM subjects.

“Certainly in chemistry, if you look to see the proportion we take, ‘A’ levels in England or the Higher in Scotland, and then go on to university, the numbers are around 50/50. So it’s not at that point we’re losing [female students]; there’s a good uptake of them at the later years at school and certainly onto university.”

Women are leaving STEM fields due to various issues, and Prof Yellowlees thinks that this situation, known as the leaky pipeline, is a much greater obstacle.

“If you go on to see how many — for example, at university — professors are women, in chemistry it falls all the way down to 6%. So you’re going from 50%, when they’re roughly aged 20, all the way down to 6%, 20 years later. I mean, that’s appalling.”

However, Prof Yellowlees thinks that things for women in STEM have definitely improved when compared to how it was in the past.

“When I started off, I was the only woman…and I can remember somebody saying to me that I was a more endangered species than a giant panda and they should put me into a breeding programme!”

But now, there are three women professors in her chemistry department, and that is a small but good improvement from before. As the conversation moved on, I asked Prof Yellowlees what she thinks about peer mentoring.

“I agree with that. I think it’s always great to have somebody who you feel is battling for you, who’s there to help you as much as possible, and to give you particular advice such as circumstances you find yourself in. So…I’m all for mentoring.”

Apart from being a successful woman in STEM, Prof Yellowlees is also a wife, a mother, a daughter, and a friend — just like everyone else. She told me that it is difficult to try to keep a balance between work and personal life.

“I don’t think it’s easy. But I have a very strong family around me that help me. So that’s been terrific support. My husband is fantastic support, so it’s great. He’s not an academic and he’s not a scientist, and I think that’s probably helped the relationship no end. I have two great children. They were very supportive of what I was trying to do, and my daughter in fact went to study chemistry at Durham university, so I can’t have been a bad influence or role model.”

Since Prof Yellowlees had some influence in her daughter taking the same route she did, I wondered if there was anyone in particular that she looked up to when she was a girl.

“At this point in time I would dearly love to rattle off a whole lot of female chemists, but at the time there were none. I’ve had a lot of role models in other aspects of my life, but I’ve just always, I think, depending on what I was doing. I’ve had mentors of various walks of life, and I’ve just taken inspiration as and when I’ve needed it.”

And with that, our conversation came to an end. Prof Yellowlees is an optimistic, confident woman who will no doubt continue to inspire and help other aspiring women scientists and academics realise their potential.

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