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February 11, 2002
Volume 80, Number 6
CENEAR 80 6 pp. 45-53
ISSN 0009-2347
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Women chemists know what they want from the working world and, increasingly, are finding it


As they move from the classroom to the workplace, new women chemists are not naive. They seem to be fully aware of the realities they face as employees in industry, academia, and government. They know, for example, that few women have yet risen to the upper echelons of their institutions. They also recognize that they are still minorities in the chemical world and, as a result, may face some obstacles foreign to their male counterparts.

YOUNG MINDS Jameton (left) believes that women before her helped breach the gender barrier, which eased her transition into academia.
But, interestingly, women starting out in chemical careers seem undaunted by these facts. With a fresh perspective and a positive attitude, they have no intention of letting gender barriers impede their professional growth.

"I feel that to some degree the 'women in chemistry' issue was an issue of a generation before me," says Rachel Jameton, 31, who has been a visiting faculty member in chemistry at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., since completing her doctorate this past summer. "Our predecessors broke down many barriers to make sure that I am comfortable going into this field. Thanks to their hard work, I am allowed to concentrate on other things."

In particular, women who have come aboard their institutions within the past few years seem to share an optimism as well as a passion for their work. "As a young person, one of the things you can exploit very well is enthusiasm," says Mary Kay H. Pflum, 31, who started her first job as an assistant professor of chemistry at Wayne State University this past fall.

"I think young professors breathe a lot of life into departments and help motivate them to move forward," she says. "We're young. We have a lot of ambition. And I think that most faculty members really appreciate an enthusiastic young person who can come and reignite their excitement about research."

Indeed, women today are completing their education better prepared than ever to manage their careers. And they continue to seek out innovative ways to rally support, sharpen skills, balance their work and family responsibilities, and champion other women coming up through the ranks.

Dealing with her minority status in the field of chemistry can be one of the greatest challenges for a woman chemist, says Christine Wehlburg, 37, a senior technical staff member at Sandia National Laboratories. "For years, I tried to figure out why going up and giving a talk was so daunting. And then I realized that I was always speaking to a room full of men, and I could count the number of women in the room with the fingers on one hand, if there were any women at all."

APLOMB Pflum advises women to seek out those who will provide support and help promote self-confidence.
IT'S NOT UNCOMMON for a woman chemist to find herself in a predominantly male research group, notes Julie Teetsov, 33, who is starting her second year as a research chemist at General Electric's global R&D center in Niskayuna, N.Y. In such a situation, she notes, a woman might feel alienated or like she is not really part of the team.

Although Teetsov was the only woman on one of her project teams when she started her job, she felt well prepared to handle the situation. In graduate school at the University of Texas, Austin, where she was also one of few women in her department, she and a group of about 15 women colleagues decided to start a peer group and talk about their feelings about being a minority. The group, Women in Chemistry, set out to improve the education and employment opportunities for women in chemistry and provide a supportive environment for personal and professional development.

Through her participation in the group, Teetsov says, "I was able to explore my feelings and develop in ways that would not have been possible in a mixed-gender group." In particular, she says the group helped her to overcome obstacles and appreciate the value of mentors, peer support, and networking. "And working as part of a team to build a new organization helped me to define exactly what I was looking for in an employer: integrity, great management, and a merit-based reward system."

During on-campus interviews, she knew GE would fit the bill, she says. In addition to being a fast-paced, customer-focused, and profit-driven company with technical excellence, GE has made a serious commitment to the support and development of a diverse workforce, she says.

"Having confidence is something that nobody tells you you need, but it's something that everyone can see when you go into an interview."

One attraction to GE was its Women's Network, which was formed in 1998 to support the professional development of women. It provides mentoring and coaching across GE and within its businesses. Participants share information on job opportunities and exchange views with successful role models. In short, the network provides a vehicle for women to connect with their peers throughout GE while learning best practices, improving their leadership skills, and managing their professional development.

In addition to tapping into GE's Women's Network, Teetsov plans to stay connected to an informal peer group of women friends and colleagues who can act as a sounding board and provide a ready source of support and encouragement. Recently, for example, Teetsov spent a weekend in Washington, D.C., with four graduate school friends to compare notes about their first year in the workforce.

"I think it's important to keep those contacts and nurture those friendships that you know will be there in 10 or 20 years," she says. "Those are very special relationships that would be difficult to establish with male peers."

Just as important as finding peer support is locating mentors, many women agree. When Kathie McReynolds, 30, set out to find her first faculty position, she wanted to find one in a department where there were other women in tenure-track or tenured positions.

For her, the chemistry department at California State University, Sacramento, met that and other requirements, and she accepted an assistant professorship there in August. Currently, she is one of six full-time female faculty members in her department. Although only one currently has tenure, one more woman will go through the tenure decision process this spring.

"For me, this is important because I have a great wealth of knowledge to draw from when I have questions concerning the tenure process," McReynolds says. "I also have the opportunity to watch how these talented women go though this progression of events at a more advanced stage than myself. And I can observe how women in the same job balance their lives and families with their careers."

Senior women can be a great source of support on topics such as professional advancement and work-family balance, but men, too, can be great mentors. Pflum, for example, says she received invaluable guidance from both men and women in her department. "The important thing is to find people in your department who want to support you. They can help you stay on track and really boost your confidence."

CONFIDENCE is critical to early success on the job, many women say. As women start a new job, it's particularly important for them to be active and visible participants in the company, says Jessica Parker, 24, an emulsion polymerization chemist at Atofina Chemicals. "Do not be afraid to speak up and present your ideas to others," she advises. "Remember, you bring a fresh perspective to the company and can identify new and different solutions to problems."

As an increasing number of companies reorganize their employees into cross-functional teams, it's even more critical for every team member--no matter how junior--to voice opinions and give input.

Upon starting her job at GE, Teetsov expected that she would be working alongside other experts in her field of scanning probe microscopy. Instead, she was put into a diverse team where she was the lone expert in her field. That team, charged with developing expertise in nanomaterials, consists of materials scientists, chemists, physicists, engineers, and theorists from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

However, women should not want to appear so confident that they stop asking questions, many women warn. "Sometimes scientists think they look silly or stupid if they ask questions or admit they don't understand something. That can be a major problem, because asking questions is really critical to one's own learning process," says Arikha Moses, 34, chief operating officer of Advanced Materials Design, in New Brunswick, N.J., a four-year-old company that develops biopolymers for drug delivery and tissue regeneration.

SUPPORT Teetsov and colleagues began a peer group to talk about issues facing women in chemistry.
WOMEN NEED TO BE assertive, too, when it comes to protecting family time, if that is a priority. It's a good idea for women to scrutinize the benefits menu of a prospective employer before accepting an offer, Wehlburg advises. While finishing up a postdoc at Sandia, she turned down an offer for an industrial position when the company refused to put the verbal promise of a flexible work schedule into writing. At the time, she was trying to reduce the number of hours that her infant son was in day care.

She's glad she held out for the permanent position she now holds at Sandia, which allowed her an official 9/80 work schedule (working 80 hours in nine days and taking every other Friday off). "My husband and I both work at Sandia, and we were able to alternate care for my son on Fridays until we felt he was ready for full-time day care."

Flexibility may be even more important to women in chemistry than in other fields. "Chemistry does not always fit neatly into an eight-to-five schedule, observes McReynolds, who does not yet have children. Through her experience with research, she knows that "there are times when things need to get done at odd hours of the night or on weekends," she adds. "My husband and I often ask ourselves how we will find the time for children someday. We know it will require greater compromise and flexibility in our schedules"--and on the part of their employers.

?Indeed, many companies are implementing programs that help employees balance work and family. GE, for example, offers flex-time and part-time work schedules, job sharing, a compressed workweek, and a telework program that allows employees to work one to four days outside of their office, Teetsov says.

SOME COMPANIES, such as Merck, have even set up on-site child care centers that bring convenience and peace of mind to employees with children. In August, Sandia employees will have access to a new childcare facility close to the lab.

Beyond work and family policies, many companies are adopting novel programs that foster a diverse workforce and help women advance. Last month, Bayer Corp. was honored with the Catalyst Award, which recognizes companies annually for implementing new and creative solutions for ensuring women's advancement in the workplace.

According to Catalyst, a New York City-based organization devoted to the advancement of women in business, Bayer has developed an overarching approach to diversity. Bayer's initiative, Bayer Women: Leaders for the Global Marketplace, focuses on developing women and people of color over time and providing them with the tools to rise up the global ladder at Bayer.

The Bayer Diversity Advisory Council drives the initiative; each of its five subcommittees--communications, education and training, mentorship, recruitment and retention, and work and life--is supported by two executive sponsors. Bayer also has a Delegate Career Development Program, which was set up to help women take on international assignments in nontraditional roles. Nine of the 19 who have participated since 1997 have completed their assignments and have achieved promotions ranging from two to four grade levels.

Bayer President and Chief Executive Officer Helge H. Wehmeier regularly reviews with his direct reports employee statistics as well as action plans for employee development and diversity. As a result, in the past four years, the percentage of women at the executive level has increased from 2.6% to 6.7%; at the vice president level, from 8.8% to 12.8%; and at the director level, from 13.6% to 21.6%.

In addition to offering formal career development programs, large companies can provide a broad spectrum of in-house job opportunities for chemists. That was a major attraction for Catherine Radzewich, 31, a research chemist within DuPont Central R&D. Although she says she loves her current assignment--developing catalysts and researching olefin polymerization under the Versipol technology umbrella--she realizes that she "already has a strong desire to pursue some other area of chemistry during the next five to 10 years."

Since starting with DuPont nearly three years ago, she has been advised to learn as much about the company as possible by attending the many in-house technical discussions and seminars it offers. "DuPont is such a large company that you can participate and learn about new areas of science every single day. The opportunities are endless," she says.

Indeed, women chemists today have many more doors open to them as they start their careers. "It is no longer an area where the only option is to be a traditional bench chemist," says Ann Watt, 27, a product safety representative at Bayer. She loves being able to apply the knowledge and expertise she gained at Bucknell University to regulatory issues. Since joining the company, she has helped orchestrate the safe handling, use, and disposal of the company's products.

Moses of Advanced Materials Design also chose a nontraditional career path. While finishing up her graduate degree at Yale University, "I realized that I loved science and technology but I didn't want to work at the bench anymore," she says. "I began doing a tremendous amount of research on how I could use my skills and education in another way." She learned all she could about investment banks, consulting firms, and venture-capital firms and in what capacity Ph.D.-level chemists work for them.

In what she calls a stroke of luck, she spotted an employment ad in a magazine for a scientific analyst--someone who could look at promising new technologies for a seed-stage venture-capital firm. That's where her research into venture-capital firms paid off, she believes. She landed an interview and was hired. "So I went around the country visiting professors and reading journals and thinking about new product ideas. It was a great, great job."

UNCONVENTIONAL Moses used her skills to carve out a nontraditional career.
THROUGH HER TRAVELS, Moses came across some exciting research on combinatorial methods for building polymer-based biomaterials. "Back in 1997 and 1998, combinatorial chemistry was a very hot field, but there weren't very many companies using the technique to design materials, so I knew this was something to explore," she says. After analyzing the market for these novel materials, she realized that they had the makings of a new company, and subsequently, her venture-capital firm formed Advanced Materials Design.

Moses is glad that she picked a career that suits her so well. But not all women know what type of job will fit their interests and aptitudes; some have to find out through trial and error.

"I had to spend a couple of years searching for a way out of the laboratory and into manufacturing, which is where my real passion lies," laments Juliya Livshits, a quality management specialist at Hoffman-La Roche. To avoid making the same mistake, she recommends that students seek out internships in areas they think they might enjoy. "Had I worked in the environment I thought I wanted to be in during my college years, I would have discovered much earlier that this was not the right place for me."

Indeed, women need to know what they want from their career before anyone can help them. "On a daily basis, you have to remind yourself of what you want and stay focused on your life goals," GE's Teetsov says. "People can help you make choices, but ultimately nobody is going to care about your life goals as much as you do."

In addition to taking responsibility for their careers, women also have a duty to give something back, Teetsov believes. "As soon as you feel you can start mentoring others, do it."

For her part Moses, who plays a key role in the company's hiring, tries to bring in as many women as possible. "Even in 2002, I still notice that women are interviewed differently than are men," she says. "I don't know if I would call that a bias, necessarily. But they certainly get asked a different set of questions."

INDEED, women starting careers in chemistry benefit from support systems that were not in place for their predecessors. Instead of facing the limitations of being newcomers, many women today say they are recognized as experts upon their arrival in the workplace. In fact, many young women chemists--irrespective of their education--say they are pleasantly surprised by the level of responsibility and authority they command fresh from the classroom.

"What I really love about my job is the opportunity I have to apply the knowledge I gained as a biochemistry major at the College of Wooster," says Andrea Jorjorian, 22, an associate scientist in the analytical chemistry department at ArQule, a drug discovery company in Woburn, Mass. Having been in her job for only seven months, "I appreciate that my coworkers have confidence in my abilities and encourage me to pursue my goals."

Teresa Beeson, 23, a medicinal chemist at Merck with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Colorado State University, likes that her job allows her to solve problems every day. "I'm thankful to have a job that doesn't require me to do only paperwork all day long," she says. Since starting last March, she has played a significant role in designing and synthesizing organic compounds aimed at specific biological targets.

"I can't speak for other companies," she says, "but at Merck, I'm given a lot of freedom to think for myself, coming up with my own ideas and carrying them out even though I only have an undergraduate degree in chemistry."

On the academic side, Jameton finds her job at Evergreen very fulfilling for the independence and creativity it allows. Because of the college's nontraditional curriculum, which is organized to emphasize interdisciplinary study and collaboration, she and her coteacher, an astrophysicist, "have complete control over how the class is run," she says.

The pair is teaching a full-time, three-quarter program called Matter and Motion, in which they examine the chemistry, physics, calculus, and policy behind global warming. Jameton enjoys having the latitude to try new teaching methods. "This is an exciting place to work because I get to keep learning along with my students."

However, securing that dream job may be more difficult than it was a year ago. In the face of a weaker U.S. economy, candidates will probably need to work harder to compete for the jobs that do exist.

"The job market started off looking pretty promising back in the summer when universities typically start to advertise for positions for next fall," observes Karen J. Castle, 27, a National Research Council postdoctoral research associate at Hanscom Air Force Base, Lexington, Mass., who is applying for assistant professorships. "But since then, a lot of universities have actually had to postpone or cancel their search efforts because of funding problems."

Worried that the academic job market might cool next year, some women, such as Amy Barrios, 27, a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, have accelerated their job searches. "Although I have only been in my postdoc position for a year and could certainly stay at UCSF for a few more years before needing a permanent position, I decided to take the plunge and apply for academic jobs for the fall," says Barrios, who senses that demand for assistant professors is strong.

"And a number of my graduate school colleagues have also decided to apply for academic jobs this year, so I was certainly not alone in my optimism," she adds. Since starting her job search about five months ago, she has been invited on four interviews and secured one job offer.

On the industrial side, demand for chemists seems weaker but not flat, according to some recent job hunters. "I didn't find many advertised positions," notes Tammy Amos, 27, who just a few weeks ago started her first job as a research chemist at the corporate center for analytical sciences within DuPont Central R&D.

When she started looking for a job back in August, she was discouraged to see that magazines didn't provide the wealth of employment ads she'd expected. In fact, industrial employment ads in C&EN have dropped over the past six months. Academic employment ads, in contrast, have risen slightly in that time. Recently, because of the unsettled economy, classified ads in publications such as C&EN and Science have declined in January and February compared with 2001.

To determine which companies were hiring, Amos says she relied mostly on "word of mouth" recommendations. "Colleagues who knew I was interested in industrial positions put me in touch with people who were hiring." Through those networking efforts, she landed an interview with DuPont and was hired.

8006empl.Castle 8006empl.barrios 8006empl.amos
HOMEWORK Job hunters like Castle (left), Barrios, and Amos stress the importance of being well prepared, gaining valuable experience, and networking.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, many women say personal contacts can be much more valuable than published leads when it comes to finding a job. At least this was true for DuPont's Radzewich, who started out responding to magazine ads and applying to positions on the Internet--an effort that paid only minor dividends.

Applying for jobs that way "is a big numbers game," she concludes. "You just have to hope that by some twist of fate your résumé lands on the desk of the right person." Ultimately, she turned to her postdoctoral adviser at the University of Iowa for help. He called a colleague at DuPont and described Radzewich's qualifications. The call led to an interview and an offer for the job she now holds at the company.

Undergraduates, too, would be wise to tap into their professors' circle of contacts. "My advice to women seeking jobs in chemistry is to use your professors; they have lots of contacts that can help you get your foot in the door," says Krystal Mohn Lovejoy, 24, a research chemist at Goodyear. Her adviser at the College of Wooster, Ted Williams, helped her contact former students, including a manager in Goodyear's analytical sciences department, who hired her shortly after graduation.

Developing a rapport with professors and others in the field is critically important for women chemists, Sandia's Wehlburg says. "Despite the large percentage of men in our field, women cannot afford to isolate themselves outside of business hours," she adds. "Networking often requires you to walk up to a group of guys and break in and introduce yourself. And I think that is contrary to the way many women were raised."

She urges women to be assertive and to become involved. "Women need to recognize that a lot of wheeling and dealing gets done in social settings such as department functions or luncheons at technical conferences."

"Our predecessors broke down many barriers to make sure that I am comfortable going into this field. Thanks to their hard work, I am allowed to concentrate on other things."

ANOTHER WAY to build up a list of valuable contacts is by working on collaborative projects with industrial firms or national labs. Wehlburg, for instance, found her job at Sandia through contacts she made during her graduate student internship there. In addition to being a networking vehicle, work experience makes a candidate significantly more marketable. Barrios believes her experience teaching at a nearby college last semester has helped her stand out in the crowd of applicants for assistant professorships.

Having internship experience was a definite feather in the cap of Merck's Beeson when she began interviewing for jobs a year ago. Thanks largely to her summerlong stint as a synthetic organic chemist with Array Biopharma, Boulder, Colo., she says she "really didn't have to worry about finding a job. I was actually having to turn down interviews left and right." She adds: "Company recruiters seemed most interested in what I had done in the lab and how much I knew. Surprisingly, my grades didn't seem to matter at all."

For undergraduates starting a job search, independent research experience is almost as valuable as work experience. "I would say without a doubt that Wooster's independent study program and my undergraduate research opportunities gave me an edge," says Jorjorian, who secured her position at ArQule shortly after graduating in May. Although some colleges like Wooster have long required that students work one-on-one with their professors to do independent research, many undergraduate institutions are just beginning the push.

As simplistic as it sounds, a lot of women stress the importance of being well prepared for interviews. That can be very challenging for chemists who are trying to keep up with their postdoc assignments at the same time, Castle notes.

Thanks to the Internet, candidates can prepare for industrial interviews very efficiently, Amos says. "I did a lot of research on companies before I went on interviews--reading up on everything from research goals to company histories," the new DuPont employee says. She believes that doing her homework really paid off, allowing her to demonstrate her sincere interest in the positions for which she was being interviewed.

California State's McReynolds is convinced that the time and care she took in crafting her application package--including teaching philosophy and research proposals--was critical to her success. She recommends that candidates "ask their peers and mentors to read the application and offer suggestions on how to make it better. These elements can go a long way toward getting an interview and the opportunity to present themselves on more than just paper."

To get those competitive jobs, "I think that you really need a very polished application and presentation," agrees Pflum, who is on the hiring side of the table only six months after joining Wayne State. "So spend the time you need to create an application that is thorough and yet concise enough so that someone with a very busy schedule will be able to understand your goals very quickly.

"Presenting yourself well is also crucial," she adds. "One of the hardest things to do is just to remember that you've worked very hard, you've put yourself in a position to get a great job, and you have the background to succeed," says Pflum, who earned her doctorate in organic chemistry at Yale and completed a two-year postdoc at Harvard. "Don't worry about your competition; just be confident. Having confidence is something that nobody tells you you need, but it's something that everyone can see when you go into an interview."

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