There is still work to be done to redress racial inequality in chemistry, and across science in general, but relatable role models can have a positive influence on the next generation.
Homophily. Ever heard of it? Me neither, until 30 minutes ago. Homophily basically means that we are more likely to connect with people who are similar to us in some way.
In work terms, homophily could be a relatable role model. So, as an Irish science writer, I admire Flann O’Brien for his ability to decongest complicated subjects with such wit and flair (not so much for hiding whiskey in the toilet during interviews). For a young chemist, a role model could be someone from a similar background who excels in a job she or he would love to have.
But what happens if you just don’t see relatable role models in your chosen field? What if systemic failings make the profession less attractive and harder to trace the path to success?
Unfortunately, systemic failings, the relative lack of homophily, and pervasive inequality were among the findings of Missing Elements – Racial and ethnic inequalities in the chemical sciences, a report released by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in March.
The report highlighted the barriers facing Black chemists in the UK, and it certainly didn’t hold back. In the Foreword, Dr Helen Pain, RSC’s Chief Executive, said: ‘The data and evidence collected in this report are clear: we are failing to retain and nurture talented Black chemists at every stage of their career path after undergraduate studies.’
The report found that just 1.4% of postgraduate students, 1% of non-academic chemistry staff, and 0% of chemistry professors are Black. It added that Black chemists face barriers in industry too, and that people from minoritised communities are under-represented at senior levels across the workforce.
It proceeded to mention six themes that affect the retention and progression for Black chemists, including the impact of homophily, which it defined as ‘the tendency for people to form connections with people similar to themselves.’
The importance of mentors
When I read that, a little bell chimed in my head. When my colleague Muriel Cozier interviewed three eminent Black chemists last year – Cláudio Lourenço, Jeraime Griffith, and Dr George Okafo – each mentioned the need for relatable role models to increase the representation of Black chemists.
When she asked Cláudio about specific impediments that prevent young Black people from pursuing chemistry, he said: ‘I think one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from pursuing careers in science is the lack of role models. If we only show advertisements for chemistry degrees with White people, it’s not encouraging for Black students to pursue a career there.
‘The same goes for when we visit universities; role models are needed. No one wants to be the only Black person in the department. Universities need to embrace diversity at all levels.’
George made a similar point. He emphasised the need for young chemists to surround themselves with mentors. ‘I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you.’ When Muriel asked him which steps could be taken to increase the number of Black people pursuing chemistry as a career, he added: ‘Have more role models from different backgrounds. This sends a very powerful message to young people studying science reinforcing the message… I can do that!’
When asked about his message for Black people following in his footsteps, Jeraime said: ‘Seek out mentors, regardless of race, who can help you get there. Don’t be afraid to email them and briefly talk about your interest in the work they’ve done, what you have done, and are doing now.’
Jeraime also cited lack of representation as a barrier that prevents more young Black people from entering chemistry. ‘Lack of representation I think is the number one barrier,’ he said. ‘Impostor syndrome is bad at the best of times, but worse still if there’s no representation in the ivory tower.’
The issue of inequality in chemistry is large – far too large for a mere 752-word blog – but as we celebrate the achievements of Black chemists everywhere this week, it is clear just how much of a positive influence role models such as Cláudio, George, Jeraime, and countless others can have on the dreams and aspirations of young chemists.
Written by Eoin Redahan and based on previous reporting by Muriel Cozier.