The Ground­break­ing Pro­fes­sor


The first ever fe­male pres­i­dent of the Royal So­ci­ety of Chem­istry in its 175-year his­tory, Pro­fes­sor Les­ley Yel­lowlees, has de­voted over 30 years to re­search, win­ning her in­ter­na­tional ac­claim. Orig­i­nally from Ed­in­burgh, she is also a mother-of-two. At one of my first meet­ings as Head of Chem­istry at the Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh, I walked in and a man said ‘Oh good, we’ve found a sec­re­tary, can I have a cup of tea?’ Now I could have re­acted with hor­ror, but in­stead I laughed. The other men at the meet­ing, who knew me well, were on the floor in tears of laugh­ter! He was mor­ti­fied, but I’ve never let him for­get it! Some­times I will go to a con­fer­ence and my hus­band will join me if he fan­cies vis­it­ing the place. Of­ten when we ar­rive he is greeted ‘Pro­fes­sor Yel­lowlees, de­lighted to meet you’, peo­ple as­sume he is the pro­fes­sor. He replies: ‘You’ve got the wrong one, it’s my wife’. It’s an ex­am­ple of un­con­scious bias. I have two chil­dren, Sarah is 32 and Mark is 30. I took three months off when Sarah was born and four months with Mark. I en­joy be­ing a mother but I also love my job, I need to work to ful­fil my­self. But ex­per­i­ments don’t fin­ish at 5pm, so I’ve been lucky that I had fam­ily close by and sup­port from col­leagues and my hus­band.

I don’t see the blocks be­cause I am a woman.

Yes, you have to work hard, but I don’t think that’s a male or fe­male thing. For me, be­ing a woman has some­times worked in my favour. Be­cause I am one of only a few women in my in­dus­try, peo­ple usually know who I am. The Royal So­ci­ety of Chem­istry asked me what I wanted to do in my two years of pres­i­dency and I said I wanted to high­light that be­ing a woman in STEM is a won­der­ful ca­reer to have. You have got to look for the op­por­tu­ni­ties in your path and go out and grab them.

‘I once at­tended a meet­ing and a man said ‘Oh good we’ve found a sec­re­tary’.’

Blazer, £45, dress, £49, neck­lace, £15, all at Deben­hams. Hair and make-up: Annabel Wil­son

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