Women in Tech. Violeta Kauneliene: Women have contributed to the chemical sciences since the age of alchemy

Community | 2019-09-30

According to the research by “Invest Lithuania”, 80 per cent of industrial engineers in Lithuania are men. However, chemical engineering is a predominantly female environment. “I would say that chemistry is a feminine professional field,” says Violeta Kauneliene, an associate professor at the Kaunas University of Technology Faculty of Chemical Technology (KTU FCT). She does not agree that science is a field for men.

“The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded 5 times to women”, says Kauneliene and provides some statistics. While only 10 per cent of girls study IT or engineering at KTU, among chemistry students 70 per cent are girls.

Female dominance in chemistry is a global phenomenon

Girls study to become experts in chemical technology and engineering, food science and technology, industrial biotechnology, sustainable engineering, eco-technology or applied chemistry. Kauneliene, the associate professor at KTU explains that many chemistry graduates specialise in food technology.

Violeta Kauneliene, Associate Professor at the Kaunas University of Technology Faculty of Chemical Technology

“Chemistry degree is needed not only for managing processes in the chemical industry but also in other fields. For example, analytical chemistry competencies are required for work in various institutions in public health care, the environment and food quality control and many other fields. Laboratory-based work requires diligence, order, and patience. Perhaps these are the traits stereotypically attributed to women?”, says Kauneliene.

The researcher says that female dominance in the field of chemistry is not new – in KTU it has been observed for several decades. Moreover, the tendency is global.

“For example, during a visit to one university in Italy, I have noticed that a lot of women work there. My colleagues from Italy confirmed that chemistry is a women-dominated field there”, says Kauneliene. Italy remains the third-largest chemical producer in Europe after Germany and France.

According to the statistics, in Germany, chemistry is popular among both women and men. While 20-30 per cent more male have higher education in chemistry, more than one-third of biochemists are women.

Violeta Kauneliene says that women have contributed to the chemical sciences since the age of alchemy: “Perhaps women were attracted by mysteries of this science? However, environmental engineering is also quite popular among women.”

She reminds that the US environmental movement was started with Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, exposing the death of birds resulting in the spraying of DDT to kill mosquitoes.

Chemistry is surrounded by myths

The researcher notices that chemistry is surrounded by myths: “Probably the most common myth is that chemistry is dangerous. Yes, some substances are, but we can’t forget that chemistry is all around us. Air, water, materials, things, even organisms are made from molecules and atoms. Chemical reactions occur all the time”, says Kauneliene.

She believes that although working at a chemical industry company can be associated with an increased risk, many contemporary companies control their processes. According to Kauneliene, air pollution caused by cars or the smoke of solid fuel burn can pose a greater threat to human health.

“All the polluting industries should be treated responsibly, not only chemical. The opinion that manufacturing productivity and economic benefits are more important than environmental protection has failed, prevailing only in the developing countries. Maximum pollution control is the only viable strategy”, says the researcher.

Kauneliene agrees that there are two sides to a medal while talking about the woman’s involvement in so-called “masculine” fields. Compared with a century ago, the door to science and career for women now is wide open, although psychophysiological differences determine that men are more suitable for some jobs and women for others.

According to the scientist, women are more diligent and therefore they dominate, for example, in administration. Another important thing to note while choosing a profession is that women value emotional dimension and the opportunity to make an influence on social not only on a professional level.

“In some countries, the number of women researchers in biology and psychology reaches 80 per cent. I do not understand the indiscriminate pursuit of the 50/50 principle in the labour market. Competence, experience, personal abilities should determine the recruiting process, not gender or an aim to provide “excellent” statistics”, says Kauneliene.

She says that it is important to choose a profession that best matches your skills – the job has to bring joy and pleasure.

Environmental protection comes before the profession

Kauneliene says that fewer teenagers want to pursue careers in tech-focused sciences. It is a global trend, unrelated to gender: “Social sciences are becoming more popular globally and not only amongst women. Young people are now inclined to opt for soft skills”.

This trend is not viable. Every country should have a balanced portfolio of different skills. It is impossible to create high value-added products only by management measures.

“The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded 5 times to women”, says Violeta Kauneliene

“The promotion of technology and life sciences is essential,” says Kauneliene and suggests looking at the high welfare states

The associate professor attained masters and doctoral degrees at the Technical University of Denmark. Her lectures are closely related to environmental chemistry.

“Together with students, we analyse the human impact on the environment. We look into preventive and technological measures to reduce pollution,” says Kauneliene

Her research interests are related to the quality of the environment: “Lately, I have been working on projects related to indoor air quality research. It is one of the most important factors that affect our health – 90 per cent of our time we spend indoors.”

Kauneliene believes that environmental protection is firstly a value, a belief and only then – a profession: “Our surveys show that determining factor for choosing Sustainable Engineering and Eco-technology studies is an aspiration to preserve the nature and environment. The environmentalist should be at least a little ‘green’ inside.”

At the end of the interview, the researcher reminds that we have only one earth, and it is polluted. The resources are running out and the climate change has grave consequences.

According to Kauneliene, science is constantly trying to convince the public that only sustainable engineering has a future.

“The processes of sustainable engineering are organised in such a way that the environmental impact is minimal, and the waste is perceived as a resource,” explains Kauneliene.

She urges young people choosing a career path to rely on universal, human qualities: critical thinking, common sense and responsibility.

Women in Tech is a project by the Kaunas University of Technology about women working in technology, engineering and innovation. The aim of the project is to eliminate gender stereotypes linked to career choices and achievements in science.