Pioneering Electrochemist on Overcoming Sexism in Science
This week in Our Voices we return to the world of science via the story of Lesley Yellowlees, who overcome sexism in science in order to conduct groundbreaking research as a leading electrochemist and has spent most of her career at the University of Edinburgh.
Natural aptitude for science
Lesley knew from a young age that science was for her. She had a natural aptitude for solving scientific problems. She also enjoyed performing algebra and calculus. Her feelings were not the same when it came to other subjects, however. “I got much more immediate satisfaction from solving a scientific problem than I ever did from writing an essay.”
School rebel who later became a brilliant electrochemist
Not enjoying essay writing was not the only issue that Lesley had at school. She says “I was always getting into trouble.” One of the reasons for this was to do with her rebellion over having to wear her school uniform. Lesley grew up in the 1960s.
During this time it wasn’t just a requirement that Lesley wore her uniform at school, she was expected to wear it out of school too. Her uniform included a little beret, which she was determined not to wear. This meant that she continually found herself getting punished. Yet, Lesley was not resentful of such punishments. “I thought it was a bit of a laugh actually.”
Lesley went to an all-girls school, which turned out to be extremely beneficial for her scientific interests. All of her teachers were female and all of them had PhDs. “They were all inspirational. And they all believed in me. And they encouraged me hugely.” Despite it being the 1960s, Lesley was insulated from gender prejudice while at school.
“I never questioned, why couldn’t I do science? If that was what I was good at and what I enjoyed, why couldn’t I go on and study it? Why couldn’t I have a career in it? I never came across any barriers to studying science.”
The highest ambitions
As a result, Lesley went on to study chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. In so doing, she became one of a small number of women in chemistry. And she became the only woman from her year to graduate with honours in chemical physics. “ I wanted to become top, I wanted to get the best marks. I like to do well, I like to succeed.” This attitude explains Lesley’s success in her studies and what shaped her into a brilliant electrochemist later in her life.
Winning the class medal
Her Year 2 exam results clearly demonstrated this. After a nervous wait, the results for the students were posted on a board. Lesley went to find out how she had done and, to her delight, discovered that she had come top of her class. This meant that she would be receiving the class medal.
First signs of sexism in science
A short while later, while still basking in the glow of her success, Lesley faced the first signs of sexism in science. It was during a tutorial that her professor said to her
“There was a lot of discussion about whether you should get the class medal because you’re a woman and some felt that you’ll not take science any further forward. And, therefore, it would be a waste of time giving you the class medal.”
Lesley could not believe what she was hearing, this confirmed that sexism in science was prevalent and thriving. “I was absolutely horrified. I mean, I’d won that class medal fair and square. We’d all sat the same exams, we’d all done the same labs. We’d all handed in the same reports. We’d all got everything marked the same and my mark was the best. And yet, because I was female, they didn’t want to give me the class medal.”
Meeting Allies on her Journey to becoming a trailblazing electrochemist
Fortunately, Lesley’s professor had been an ally and he had challenged the culture of sexism. He’d passionately argued that, as the top performing student, the medal should have been hers. But he’d felt so strongly about the discussions that took place that he’d felt Lesley should be made aware of them. Yet, not only was Lesley’s professor an ally, so were her fellow students.
“Because they were so outraged and supportive, I think it made it easier for me to hear so that it wasn’t just me that was angry; other people were angry on my behalf.”
Re-evaluating her surroundings
Nevertheless, the experience did make Lesley re-evaluate the world around her. She felt disappointed in the university and she started to realise “that perhaps I hadn’t got the world quite right… that there were other things going on.” Eventually, however, she decided not to dwell on the situation. She had her medal, her focus now would be on getting the next one.
Becoming a pioneering electrochemist
After graduating from university, Lesley proved her doubters wrong and became an established electrochemist. This involved travelling extensively. Her travels took her to Australia where she researched solar energy. She was investigating how dyes could be converted into electricity by using the sun’s energy
During the course of her studies, she came across some results which were very different from her predictions. When she repeated her experiments and the results remained the same, Lesley realised that she may have discovered something rather interesting.
“I was so excited about it. I was running up to people in the department that had no knowledge of what I was doing and saying, I’ve got this great discovery! I’ve discovered this thing and I’ve done some wonderful experiments and look at the results! … Seeing results that nobody had seen before and coming up with this theory that nobody had come up with before, it was empowering. It was exciting. I loved it.”
It was clear that Lesley had discovered her passion. Scientific research would be the focus for the rest of her career in which she would establish herself as a pioneering electrochemist.
The importance of giving back
In 2012, Lesley became the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. In accepting, she became the first female president in the organisation’s 175-year history. As president of the society, she made it her mission to challenge sexism in science.
Lesley also received an MBE in 2005 for her services to science and a CBE in 2014 for her services to chemistry. Lesley is now among the most celebrated female chemists. When asked what advice she would give to future potential women in chemistry, she says:
“go for it and I’ll back you and I’ll help you as much as I can… I’m now in the fortunate position where I can give back. And I think it’s tremendously important that we do that. And that you put a hand down and help people up.”