Women in science Q&A – Polly Arnold

Written by Staff reporter on 12 November 2017 in Inside Politics

Professor Polly Arnold OBE is the Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. 

Polly Arnold - credit Dominic Ibbotson

In the latest in our series of Q&As with leading women in science, we speak to Polly Arnold, a pioneer in exploratory synthetic chemistry.

What barriers did you face going into science growing up, and how did you overcome them?

Self-confidence – which became the imposter syndrome as I rose through the ranks in science. They’re both societally influenced, and deeply ingrained, and I haven’t overcome them. When I was testing my own ability to be an independent, creative scientist, I would generate many ideas, thinking ‘it can’t be a good idea, or someone would have done it’. Eventually, when I saw enough of these published by other people, I had data to prove to myself I wasn’t a complete imposter.

For confidence, I keep a wee folder of nice emails that people have sent, congratulating me on a nice new molecule, or a good talk. I don’t reread them, but I know they’re sitting there.

The Scottish Government has recognised women in science as an untapped resource, but what barriers remain?

The fact that unconscious bias is so boring. Until we change society, and achieve equal pay, it’s too easy to get one woman in, then relax and think we’ve done it, and forget to keep counting.  The women and minorities will continue to leak disproportionately out of the pipeline of talent at every step due to all the subtle, complicating factors that we know about, like self-confidence, feelings of not fitting in, disproportionate caring responsibilities, attitudes about ‘gendered’ attributes, like ‘leadership’, ‘genius’, ‘likeability’, incorrect assumptions that women talk more than men, and men’s fear of emasculation.

Do you see yourself as a role model or pioneer, and what advice would you give a young woman entering science today?

Yes, and it gives me super-powers I can use for good. My advice is: ‘Have the self-confidence of a mediocre white man’.

Can you think of a moment in your career where you have felt undermined or patronised because you are a woman?

No, not ‘a moment’. It happens nearly every day that I step outside my workplace. But I have white, middle-class, rich privilege, and work in a fantastically inclusive and feminist department, in a world-class university that is doing a lot for diversity and inclusion across the board. I’m one of the lucky ones.

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