The Leaky Pipeline – How do we plug the gap?

Guest blog by Professor Robert Mokaya and Assistant Professor, Andrew Nortcliffe.

‘Leaky pipeline’ is the phrase commonly used to describe the progressive loss of capable individuals from academic careers in science. This is a particular problem in Chemistry, more so than other scientific disciplines. In 2018, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) published its Breaking the Barriers report, the report outlined that women comprise just 9% of UK chemistry professors, a drop of 35% of female chemists from the undergraduate level. Now a similar analysis by the RSC’s Inclusivity and Diversity team has shown that the academic pipeline continues to fail to retain Black, Asian and other ethnic minority chemists.

The research conducted by the RSC analysed Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) data and showed that while the number of ethnic minority students starting an undergraduate chemistry degree mirrored the UK general population, there is a dramatic change through academia’s career stages with a 50% drop in Asian students and 80% drop in Black students studying at postgraduate level. Physics and Biology also see a similar decline in Black students at postgraduate level, a decrease by two thirds in Physics and 80% in Biology. There is a further drop at the academic staff level. In the 2017/18 academic year (the year the Hesa data analysed) there were only 30 Black non-professorial chemistry staff at UK institutions, which is less than 1% of the total including all postdocs, lecturers and readers. The number given for Black chemistry professors is zero, because it is rounded to the nearest five. This ‘leaky pipeline’ is also present in the USA. Only 1.6% of chemistry professors at the top 50 US schools are Black – an 88% reduction on the number of first-year US college students who are Black.

Professor Robert Mokaya remains the only Black Professor of Chemistry in the UK. ‘When I was promoted in 2008, I was very aware that there was a lack of others like me but was unaware that I was possibly the first Black chemistry professor in the UK,’ says Mokaya. ‘My hope then was that there would be others. But I don’t know of any other appointment since then. And of course that is really very disappointing.’ Mokaya, who has been awarded a Royal Society Wolfson Merit Award for his research into sustainable materials for energy storage, is PVC for Global Engagement.

Black undergraduate students are least likely to study Chemistry at one of the Russell Group universities and there are double the number of Black women than men studying Chemistry at the undergraduate level.

So how do we plug the gap?

In 2019 the University of Nottingham published its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Delivery Plan, which provides a coordinated plan to infuse EDI throughout our entire University community. Embedded within this plan are strategies for retention of talent within the University.

The University of Nottingham is a member of the Race Equality Charter (REC). This gives us a framework in which to identify, explore and consider issues affecting the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic students and staff at the University. The University will submit for a REC Bronze award later this year.

Across the University we are working to provide opportunities for Black, Asian and ethnic minority students to network and speak with alumni who share their experiences since graduating and entering the world of work. Earlier this year the Faculty of Science held a networking event for students from the Schools of Physics, Chemistry, Biosciences, Psychology and Pharmacy to engage with alumni. The outcomes of this event have allowed the Faculty to identify the concerns of these students with respect to moving beyond their undergraduate studies and has set in motion an action plan to support students applying for postgraduate studies. The BBSRC DTP, that hosts students in Biosciences and Chemistry, has seen an increase in BAME representation from 0-3% between 2015-2019 to 14% in 2020 – positive action has been adopted including reviewing the recruitment process to include anonymisation and scoring on motivation and potential as markers for success, rather than previous attainment.

Across the University, we have a responsibility to support the applications of Black students to postgraduate STEM study. Over the next year the Graduate School is introducing an applicant mentoring programme for Black and Black mixed ethnicity candidates. This will include applicant information webinars and a guaranteed interview scheme for Black and Black mixed candidates for postgraduate study.
Within the next five years the University aims to have no less than a 20:80 BAME:White representation within all teams and at all levels of the University. Elsewhere in the University, The multicentre Sustainable Hydrogen CDT has a target to recruit PhD students to match the national average (18% BAME and 50% gender), and works with a diverse supervisor pool to build a cohort where EDI is embedded in the workplace. This includes compulsory EDI training for students and supervisors and incorporating an ongoing discussion into EDI issues as part of the student research project portfolio.

Over the next few months, faculties will be reviewing their ethnicity data and will put action plans in place to increase BAME representation across all job families at all levels. For Science, we plan to examine our graduate population as part of our actions.

These actions show the University is continuing to work towards being a better, more inclusive environment where the potential of all students is recognised. The Leaky Pipeline won’t be solved overnight, but our commitments now will prevent further talent from leaving an academic career path.

Get involved

Across the University there are opportunities for staff and students to get involved in projects to support EDI. The Sphere Programme is a key element of the Strategic Delivery Plan and tasks our Faculties, Professional Services and the Students’ Union with annual Sphere challenges, which highlight and address their distinct areas of priority and delivery. You can become a Sphere Ally here.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Trent Building
University Park Campus