Women in crystallography and gender equality at the CCDC

Today marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science[1] so it is the perfect time to reflect on women in crystallography and how we are striving for equality at the CCDC.

As I noted last yearmany women in crystallography have completely changed the discipline. Dorothy Hodgkin is perhaps one of the most famous, winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on penicillin, insulin and vitamin B12. She is still the only British woman to have won the prize compared to over 20 British men. Dorothy’s achievements are perhaps even more impressive because she had to fight to be allowed to study chemistry along with the boys at her state school in Beccles, Suffolk.[2] Kathleen Lonsdale is another amazing lady who played a fundamental role in establishing the science of crystallography. In 1929 she proved that the benzene ring is flat by using X-ray diffraction methods to elucidate the structure of hexamethylbenzene. Again, Kathleen’s journey into science wasn’t easy. The girls' school that Kathleen attended didn’t offer physics, chemistry and mathematics and so she had to attend classes at the local boys' school instead.[3]  Kathleen went on to achieve a number of firsts, including being the first woman president of the IUCr.

Next up on my list of amazing women crystallographers is Olga Kennard, her incredible vision founded the Cambridge Structural Database (CSD) and at the CCDC we are very much in debt to her for her ground-breaking work. You can watch her talk about how the CSD began at our CSD50 event in 2015 here. Other women crystallographers of considerable note are Ada Yonath, best known for her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, Isabelle Karle the first person to apply direct methods and Rosalind Franklin whose work was pivotal to the understanding of the molecular structures of both DNA and RNA.  There really are too many women crystallographers to mention them all. I would encourage you to seek out as many as possible, celebrate their achievements and find inspiration from their efforts because although crystallography is known for having a high number of leading female scientists the numbers of males and females in the field are still far from equal.

UNESCO states that less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and according to UNESCO data (2014 - 2016), only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.[1] Unfortunately, long-standing biases and gender stereotypes still turn girls away from science and related fields. Days like International Day of Women and Girls in Science and International Women’s Day (#IDW2020 on the 8th March) are designed to help change that. The idea is to celebrate women and girls, who are leading innovation, establish a call for action to remove all barriers that hold them back and challenge long standing biases and gender stereotypes.

Efforts like these certainly encouraged me. I have always enjoyed science and mathematics and I still remember our comprehensive school being visited by a mobile installation designed to inspire a new generation of girls. Although my science and mathematics teachers were predominantly male, through their encouragement, they definitely helped me dream I could be a scientist. During my undergraduate degree in Chemistry at Southampton I have to admit that I didn’t think much about gender balance  but I do remember attending a mathematics course and being astounded at how few girls were in the class. A few years later I was lucky enough to be involved in a campaign to encourage girls to take up science in UK schools by celebrating some amazing scientists who happened to be women!

Photo female members of the CCDC

Photo showing some of the female members of the CCDC taken in the CCDC library in Cambridge.Taken by Nathan Pitt, ©University of Cambridge

So, what does the picture look like at the CCDC?  Since IDW2019 we have employed over 20 new members of staff and 42% of new starters have been female. Although our CEO Juergen Harter is male, our senior leadership team includes 3 females taking the roles of Head of Finance, Head of HR and Head of Database. The General Manager of our US operation, Carmen Nitsche is female too. Last year’s recruitment follows the general pattern at the CCDC and overall 40% of our employees are female. 2019 also saw an increase in female software developers at the CCDC and although there is still a long way to go it is an encouraging step forward. Our scientific teams are more balanced with an equal number of males and females overall and I am pleased to say the Database Team swings the balance the other way with 57% female members.

SAB photo

Photo showing our Scientific Advisory Board in front of the river Cam in Cambridge

At the CCDC we are governed by our Board of Trustees and 2019 also saw the establishment of our Scientific Advisory Board. So how gender balanced are our boards? Our Board of Trustees is made up of 6 members with 2 females including our Chair of Trustees, Judith Currano. Our Scientific Advisory Board is similar with 9 board members in total of whom 3 are women. At the CCDC we are also supported by contacts from our National Affiliated Centres (NACs), of whom 20% are female. So there is clearly a way to go to achieve an equal balance. What does the future hold? Well at the CCDC we co-sponsor several PhD students and since 2017 our new PhD cohort has consisted of 3 males and 5 females. It is clearly too early to tell if this trend will continue but it shows promise. Let’s hope that one day we live in a world where gender, race, religion or background does not define the job you can have and that we are all treated equally and fairly.

To celebrate women and girls in science and innovation as well as publishing this blog we will be highlighting some of the amazing ladies that work at the CCDC on social media. Between the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11th February, and the International Women’s Day, 8th March, you will find on our social media channels information about some of the women working at the CCDC.
Please do follow us to learn more about them and help us celebrate their careers. We would also love to hear about other women in crystallography and help you celebrate them too.
Share your stories with us: on Twitter at @ccdc_cambridge and on Facebook at @ccdc.cambridge, and using #IDW2020 and #womenandgirlsinscience.


[1] https://www.un.org/en/observances/women-and-girls-in-science-day

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51399835

[3] https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/woman-of-substance-/3004326.article