An ambitious new initiative by Somerville College and the Oxford Chemistry Department aims to break down some of the key barriers that affect women scientists.
Somerville College is crowdfunding a five-year career development fellowship to support a scientist who wants to return to research after a career break. The fellowship will honour one of Somerville’s most illustrious alumnae, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who won the only Nobel Prize for chemistry ever awarded to a British woman for her groundbreaking work in Crystallography. More than half a century after her win, women remain significantly under-represented in the senior echelons of science academia.
Already, 151 generous donors have given more than £133k, making the project 26% funded with 22 days left. All gifts are being matched pound for pound. Somerville has also received strong endorsement for the project from Nobel Laureate, President of the Royal Society and Somerville’s Honorary Fellow, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan.
The retention of women in STEM subjects is an enduring global problem: research shows that diverse working environments promote collaboration, risk-taking and effective problem-solving. Although in recent years we have become far more successful in encouraging girls and women to study science, there is a significant drop-off of women in science academia as seniority increases. This means that whilst 44% of doctoral graduates in chemistry are female, only 24% of non-professorial academic staff and 8% of professors in chemistry are female.
Reports from respected institutions around the world have cited a key contributing factor: taking a career break, often to start a family or to care for a family member. For women, choosing to marry and have children makes it much more difficult to get a permanent job. In fact, married women with children are 35% less likely to get a permanent academic position, so they are twice as likely to change their career goals as men with children or women without children.
Science needs women, yet opportunities to return to science are rare and in huge demand. The Dorothy Hodgkin Career Development Fellowship is aimed at scientists returning to research after a career break, and will help set an example of how positions can be constructed to offer viable career paths for women, both within Oxford and for other universities. The project is a pioneer within the crowdfunding community in higher education, and Somerville hopes it will become a flagship example of the use of crowdfunding to encourage a shift in culture and policy.
Somerville and Chemistry also want to honour Hodgkin’s legacy. She was not only an extraordinary scientist, but a teacher who led by example, an advocate for social equality and the first woman to receive a form of maternity pay from the University of Oxford. She also donated some of her Nobel Prize money to set up the first onsite nursery at Oxford, Somerville College Nursery.
The Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship post emphasises flexibility, strong mentorship and interdisciplinary science. It will be based in Somerville College, where the nursery offers additional benefits, and appointed jointly by the Department of Chemistry and another science department varied on the research area of the Hodgkin Fellow, to facilitate interdisciplinary research.
Somerville College has been admitting women to study at Oxford since 1879, and men since 1996. Somerville has a proud history of opening doors that were firmly shut to women. The College was responsible for first branded higher education crowdfunding platform at Oxford University and the third in the UK.