TUM Ambassador Polly Arnold

“We all have a bias towards men”

Polly Arnold is one of the leading specialists in the field of synthetic chemistry and a strong supporter of young female scientists. As feminist influencer she addresses the under-representation of women in science linking it to the “unconscious bias” we all have.

When she finished school she knew she didn’t want an ordinary desk job: “I’ve always loved problem solving, and working with my hands” Polly Arnold explains, as if she was a normal craftsman – excuse me: craftswoman. But, getting to know her, one quickly notes Professor Arnold is a strong problem solving, determined, and creative person. One doesn’t wonder that she has been awarded countless times in her career so far. In December 2017 she was honored as TUM Ambassador appreciating her determined commitment to young researchers and her outstanding academic achievements.

Her recipe for success as a female chemical scientist in a male dominated area? “I work really hard. I have been well supported and I love it”, Arnold explains as if it was nothing. “My motivation is a mixture of worry and optimism. The worry keeps me honest and constantly challenging every result. The optimism makes me suggest the weirdest of reactions.”

But this is just one reason. Reflecting her career she hesitates: “I’m afraid, it is significant to my success that I don’t have children.” And she could be right. Successful women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are still the minority – not only in her home country Great Britain. In Germany the percentage of female professors in STEM is only 13 percent as well. But, to make it even worse there is another side of the coin: “As a woman without children, I am afraid I may be viewed as a ‘machine’ or ‘the aggressive woman no one likes’”, Arnold says. These are facts that not only touch her. It is a reality too many women experience in their business lives.

Unconscious bias – unconscious prejudices against women

For Arnold one important reason can be found within society – in everyone of us. Men as women tend to give preference to men in business life, for senior and executive positions – very often without being aware. For her – realizing this unconscious bias was a “real shocker”.
“The problem is, women do have this unconscious bias as well”, she says empathic. Being not aware of giving preference to men in career situations or even in daily life is the main problem in our society. “Constantly reminding ourselves of our biases is hard to remember and boring, but it is so important that we keep these in mind whenever we have to make decisions, especially when we are stressed or tired, when our biases increase.”

What else can we do to solve this problem? Arnold knows, strong feministic thinking mentors are crucial. “When you talk to women who are still in science, almost all of us had strong mentors who supported and encouraged us,” she says. She is a proud feminist and she herself constantly tries to be the best possible mentor for young scientists – especially women.

WE NEED TO BLAME SOCIETY. THE MAIN PROBLEM IS ALL OF OUR UNCONSCIOUS BIASES – NOT JUST THOSE WORKING IN SCIENCE.

This is a reason why she funded the production of the documentary “A Chemical Imbalance” with her award of the Rosalind Franklin prize from the Royal Society. In this short film Arnold examines the issues that contribute to the continuing under-representation of women in all science fields.

Scientist Sisterhood – a network

Relentless as she is – she has also started a new task lately. “Scientist Sisterhood”: a network for senior female scientists in Scotland that is visible online. The female experts can be found and contacted quickly without lots of research via a map for example as conference speakers. It seems a simple idea but a cross-cutting network is long overdue. Women make up only about ten percent of the senior scientists in universities, public bodies and industry in the UK. “Those women can find themselves in a position where they are a lone woman in an area, and perhaps leading an all-male team”, Arnold explains. Her idea is that senior women support each other in building a network that underpins confidence among them and emphasizes excellence.

Since 2013, every year TUM names international guest researchers TUM Ambassadors. You find all TUM Ambassadors here.