Professor Dr. Dr. Vania Zuin: "What is considered good enough for women in science?"

ISC3 – International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre

Gender and Sustainable Chemistry

Women play a particularly important role in establishing sustainable chemistry. They act as "agents of change" promoting sustainable development at a local, regional and global level. In all sectors and regions of the world, are making their voices heard, demanding and driving gender justice in the chemicals sector and beyond. Moreover, investing in women's education also pays off well in the sustainability sector, as they are sources of knowledge for the coming generations and pass on their skills. 

As in other disciplines, women face challenges in the field of sustainable chemistry: Although the proportion of women studying chemistry is continuously rising, they are still underrepresented in chemical companies - particularly in management positions and as founders. Another relevant aspect concerning women and chemistry is the critical role that women play as consumers of chemical products. They are among the most vulnerable and often poorly protected groups, both at work and in daily life.

The ISC3 initiative "Gender and Sustainable Chemistry" aims to discuss the challenges and barriers woman are facing in this field. It will make the potentials of women visible and highlight their engagement in chemistry and chemical management.

As a thought-starter, see also the blog article Gender and Sustainable Chemistry: How women can benefit from sustainable chemistry …and sustainable chemistry from them, by Creta Gambillara, ISC3 Policy Manager initially published in the Blog Series “Together for a gender-just healthy planet” by the MSP-Institute.

In the series of articles below, the ISC3 presents women active in sustainable chemistry from various fields such as politics, innovation, NGOs, research and education and describes their achievements, experience and perspectives.

Professor Vania Zuin holds two PhDs, one in Analytical Chemistry and a second in Education. She is a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos in Brazil and a visiting professor at the University of York (UK) and Leuphana University (Lüneburg, Germany). In Lüneburg, she is currently lecturing in the world's first Professional Master in Sustainable Chemistry which started in March 2020. She also conducts research projects and supervises students supported by Brazilian and German public institutions, as well as the Alexander von Humboldt (AvH) and Robert Bosch Foundations. One of the international research programmes she leads is the "Field & Food Tech Hub" (Innovation Agency-UFSCar, Sao Carlos, Brazil), a project that promotes healthy and ethical living through green and sustainable products and processes in agriculture and the food industry. Having vast experience and a strong educational background, Vania Zuin describes the situation of women in her research field and their potential contributions to sustainable chemistry from an insider’s perspective.

Vania Zuin, professor in Analytical Chemistry and Education

Zuin: "I am happy that I can pass on my valuable experience to my students."

Zuin: "I would not like to put a full stop on the gender discussion, but instead encourage a wider debate about diversity."

How did you get into chemistry?

I was about 17 years old and visited an exhibition presented by chemistry students at a university in Brazil. I was so surprised and amazed because I found everything I liked: The microscopic, as well as the macroscopic dimension. The students used knowledge to describe phenomena, but it was not only about molecules. It was also about how we use scientific information, how we design using chemistry to promote the common good, health, peace, and democracy. Chemistry, like everything else, is about people. It is not only about what, but how science is performed, we sometimes forget this. It was a turning point for me when I understood that what I wanted had a name.

What has helped you on your career path so far?

I realised that I had to work really hard, usually harder than men. As women, we need to prove that we are excellent in our subject all the time. You start your undergrad course with 70 per cent women, but the ones you hear in the lecture hall are almost always men even though women developed the ideas. I observed that the survival strategy of some female students was to become very tough, always presenting a perfect picture to the outside world. I can absolutely comprehend that, but it's also a pity. We should all bring in our characteristics; the female way of looking at life, possibly with a broader perspective and empathy, is precious. I noticed that I should have a clear intention and work very hard. But that is not all. It is also important how we do things or the correct ways that we achieve our objectives together, with excellent collaboration. This includes trust, honesty, strong connections over long periods and space for debate to promote truly relevant, inclusive, fair and cutting-edge knowledge.

On my career path, my supervisors were a great help and, later on, collaborators. At one point, I recognised that, by chance, all my supervisors for my PhDs were female. I learnt a lot from them and learnt that when I worked hard and was focused, I had the recognition and support I needed. It was a balance of being or aiming at being excellent in my subject and having distinguished supervisors who gave me a hand.


Today you are a professor yourself, how do you support your students?

I am happy that I can pass on my experience to my students. I try to put exceptional people together, being very selective. But that's not the whole solution; we need to achieve outputs, present results, write papers, coordinate projects. And sometimes we need to go on the stage and claim what we achieved, especially being a woman in science. I am always discussing all these aspects with my students in a very frank manner: it is also about opening hearts and minds. Thus, science is a social affair too, and that is so beautiful. We need to have a broader approach and locate the right person to do a task and then share the result with the community.

You got to know universities in Brazil, the UK, and in Germany. Do you see differences for women and their career opportunities?

Science is like a country itself, and there are similarities. We have to see that chemistry is still a male-dominated subject, like many STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields. We see the numbers: the majority of undergrads are women, but we are not full professors, directors, and editors-in-chief of journals, mostly. And let us not delude ourselves, although there are laws on gender equality in Brazil, society is far from being equal (for more information see here and here). In the UK and Germany, there are far more support programmes, and that is what is needed: Programmes to support women throughout their career tracks, to ensure they do not give up this scientific field, and more importantly, that they have the chance of a successful career in which they can also choose to have children.

What else could help women in this field?
Discussing our role openly in science and, to summarise, I would highlight two things: First, we need more awareness about the potential of women in our field. And also: awareness of the challenges women are facing - especially in Brazil, where we are constantly judged not only by our achievements in science but also by our appearance, age, having a partner and children as synonyms of being really successful - by taking on a large part of the family work. It's all about sharing, science as well as the other aspects of life.
Second, we have to be on the lookout for women doing excellent science and change our success benchmarks. Publishing articles in science journals still offers you the most prominent impact factor. But there are also other indicators; we need to consider expert books, reports and directives for ministries, involvement in calls for projects with strong national and international cooperation, like for example UN projects, the number of supervised students and if they are successful in reaching out for good professional positions. We also need to consider the place and circumstances women are working in. To investigate new standards here could also be interesting work for the ISC3.

How do you appraise the role of women in sustainable chemistry?
Much of what I have just mentioned also applies to sustainable chemistry. We are at a turning point, considering the SDGs and the relevance of sustainable chemistry is becoming increasingly important. And that is why we need a broader view; it is not only about green chemistry; sustainable chemistry is much more than that. We have to include diversity in our standards, i.e. excellent people from different sectors, with diverse characteristics, who think differently. When we are reproducing the same in the same way, we will always get the same products and problems, and nothing will change. We need to be part of the change, with all our different perspectives.

How can you envision the future of sustainable chemistry and the gender topic?

Let us locate the rules and be aware that we cannot always maintain them. And I would not like to put a full stop on the gender discussion, but instead, encourage a wider debate about diversity. For instance, including different experiences, ages, races, geographical distribution, having or not children, etc. Chemistry is about transformation, and we are transforming ourselves all the time. Sustainable Chemistry, as presented by the ISC3, comprehends such ideas; it is a broader view related to long-term processes transforming chemistry in all sectors, aligned to the UN's SDGs. Interestingly, the well-rooted decision from the ISC3 for an open definition about sustainable chemistry is a vanguard, helping to promote more effective dialogues encompassing diversity, transparency, simplicity with elegance and excellence in research, development and innovation that are keystones towards a plural and more sustainable world.