No end of surprises
As I am sure you will know, there is a widespread perception in schools, no matter what the industry or teachers or anyone else says to the contrary, that chemistry is basically a subject for boys. And definitely not 'cool' boys at that; for years in the UK and I am sure many other countries, it has been perceived as too complicated, not interesting and not likely to lead to anything other than work that only nerds and geeks would do. This is probably one of the most unfortunate and enduring misconceptions about the subject.
The consequence is obvious. The chemicals industry is overwhelmingly led by men, out of proportion even with the general dominance of men at the upper reaches of most professions. According to a recent study in another industry magazine, only one major chemicals company has a female CEO (DuPont's Ellen Kullman) and one has a female CFO.
Further down the food chain, it is a similar tale. In my job, I meet many of middle to senior managers in the fine and speciality chemicals industry, as well as working chemists and others. A quick - and of course not very scientific - count of the business cards I had accumulated a few years ago revealed that 85% of my contacts were men, 15% women. This is almost certainly an overstatement of the presence of women in this part of the industry, given that a fair chunk of those I know are in the media, where it is more like 50:50.
This being the case, it was hardly surprising that at the 100+ chemicals and chemistry conferences, industrial and academic, that I have attended in the last 15 years in this job and other, the majority of the attendees were men, by a very long way. Until last week, when I attended the International Symposium on Catalysis & Speciality Chemicals (ISCSC), of which a review will appear in a future edition of SCM. There, a clear majority of the attendees, who were mostly PhD chemistry students, were women, as were most of those giving posters. In terms of oral presentations as opposed to keynotes and plenaries, it was about even.
So where was this event that turned every assumption on its head? Sweden? Norway? Iceland?
Actually it was in Algeria, in a small town called Tlemcen. In an overwhelmingly Muslim country that has only just emerged from a long state of emergency, fighting Islamist guerillas who, you imagine, would not have wanted girls getting educated at all, much less to PhD level. Was this the result of government encouragement or a certain popular view of chemistry, I asked some. Not particularly, it seems; things just worked out that way. So there seems no reason why it couldn't work that way in the West too.
There was another surprise, though perhaps that's just me. When I was originaly invited to ISCSC, I was also asked to give a short concluding presentation at the farewell dinner on scientific journalism. I assumed it would need to be in French. (My ability to speak French never ceases to be received with wonder, even though my language capabilities are no more than average by European standards.) After all, Algeria is an Arabic-speaking former French colony where French is still the main foreign language. No doubt there would be some translation, but the majority of the presentations would be in French or Arabic, wouldn't they?
Wrong again. It was all in English, the language which clearly has conquered the world of science and business. Some of the student presenters were far from fluent but speak in English they had to, to an audience of about 200 in which only about 15 were not mother tongue Arabic speakers and most of those understood French. Such is the way of the world these days. Not least in encouraging the English-speaking world to continue with its deplorable indifference to speaking anything other than English, safe in the (usually correct) assumption that the world will continue to meet it on its own terms.