Lessons Learned?

The female empowerment portrayed in the book and television series Lessons in Chemistry may have been ahead of its time.

By Peter F. Meiksins, Ph.D.

CREDIT: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The experiences of a woman chemist facing sexism in science in the mid-20th century seems an unlikely topic for 21st-century popular culture. Yet, Bonnie Garmus’ Lessons in Chemistry1 focuses on just that and has experienced tremendous success. The book, published in 2022, spent 51 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list as of November 2023, was named Amazon’s Best Book for April 2022, and was Barnes & Noble’s Book of the Year for 2022. And in November 2023 Apple TV released a limited television series based on the book.

Lessons in Chemistry aims to depict, in an approachable and humorous way, the difficulties women experienced if they attempted to enter the world of science in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Elizabeth Zott, a talented, aspiring research chemist, enters a graduate program in chemistry in the late 1950s but soon falls victim to sexual misconduct and the university’s unwillingness to do anything about the misbehavior of a male professor. She leaves for a job at a research institute, where she becomes romantically involved with a brilliant, successful, but unorthodox male chemist. With his support, both psychological and institutional, her career as a researcher begins to show signs of taking off. Unfortunately, he dies in an accident and Zott is subsequently fired by the research institute, whose staff resented her and refused to see her as anything more than a parasite feeding off her late partner’s success.

After a few years spent raising their child and struggling to make ends meet, she meets a television producer who invites her to do a weekly cooking program on a local television station. Despite (or perhaps because of) her refusal to act like a traditional housewife and her insistence on discussing the chemistry of cooking, Zott’s program is a tremendous success. The book closes with a complex set of circumstances that enable her to become a teacher at the very institute that had fired her.

Those looking for a portrait of sexism in mid-century science will find Lessons in Chemistry largely accurate, though the TV portrayal is at times cartoonish. Zott is subjected to a wide range of aggressions that are unfortunately all too familiar:

  • She is sexually harassed (even assaulted) by men in positions of power
  • She is mistaken for a secretary when she enters the world of science
  • Men try to force her into stereotypically female roles and behaviors
  • She is ignored when she speaks
  • She is paid less than her male colleagues in similar positions
  • Her scientific achievements are not recognized, are attributed to others, or are stolen
  • Her pregnancy is seen as disqualifying her for scientific employment

These are all realities that have been well-documented in historical accounts of the struggle to achieve gender equity in STEM.

Those seeking to learn how women responded to sexism in that period may find Lessons in Chemistry less satisfactory. The fact that Zott is able to start a cooking show is not completely implausible, as local television stations in many American markets had begun airing daytime programs aimed at women in the period2. But her resolutely feminist response to her mistreatment seems ahead of its time. Very few women in the late 1950s would have been ready to confront their attacker with a weapon, as she does; to openly resist being stereotyped; to challenge having their work stolen; to refuse to get married; or to try to raise a child as a single mother while pursuing a professional career.

Perhaps to appear more realistic, the television adaptation softens Zott somewhat compared to her portrayal in the book, by, for example, having her character agree, unhappily, to participate in a beauty contest and by making her seem more traditionally “feminine” by emphasizing her emotional side and her interest in cooking per se, not just as a form of chemistry. Still, even the TV version of Zott asserts herself to a degree that seems surprising for the time. As such, Lessons in Chemistry is less a historical account of actual female scientists in the ’50s and more a parable about the struggle of female scientists generally to be accepted.

What does Lessons in Chemistry tell us about what it takes to get more women into science? In some ways, the story embraces the view that scientists are naturally “brilliant,” so the key is for “brilliant” women like Zott to fight against the exclusion and harassment they encounter. Yet, Zott’s approach implies that many women, not just those who are “brilliant,” have the ability to become scientists. She emphasizes the importance of treating women as capable and believes that the consequences of women increasing their scientific understanding will be felt not just in science but in society as a whole. She makes this clear in explaining her approach to her TV program to a reporter, saying:

“I’m referring to atoms and molecules, Roth … The real rules that govern the physical world. When women understand these basic concepts, they can begin to see the false limits that have been created for them.”

Both the book and the TV adaptation are entertaining. Portrayals of scientists of any kind, much less women scientists, rarely garner attention these days, so one may wonder why this portrait of a woman in science has achieved such popularity. Perhaps it is because the story transports us to an earlier, less egalitarian time, reminds us of how bad things used to be, and shows us how a heroine with a modern sensibility, can, with difficulty, prevail. The story makes us feel good because it both shows us that change is possible and implies that we’ve already come a long way.

How far have we actually progressed? In some ways, chemistry is the right field to choose for a portrait of progress toward gender equality in science. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that 46.3% of “chemists and material scientists” were women in 2022. Chemical engineering is somewhat less gender-integrated, with only 27.9% being women, but that is still substantially higher than the 16.1% of all architectural and engineering positions held by women, for example.3

These are impressive numbers, but it would be naive to argue that the problems described in Lessons in Chemistry have been eliminated. Sexual misconduct remains a problem in scientific workplaces and women scientists continue to struggle to be recognized and get credit for their accomplishments. Salary discrepancies also remain. The American Chemical Society’s 2022 survey of members found that male chemists with a bachelor’s degree earned almost 25% more than their female counterparts.4 There is a smaller gap for recent graduates, but as Nobel Economics Prize winner Claudia Goldin has shown, the salary gap between male and female professionals grows over the course of their careers, often related to the birth of children.5

Zott would also be unhappy to learn that only eight women have received the Nobel Prize in chemistry (4.1% of all chemistry Nobels awarded). The hope is that readers and viewers of Lessons in Chemistry will be inspired by its messages about women’s scientific abilities and capacity to effect change and press for continued progress.


  1. Garmus, Bonnie. 2022. Lessons in Chemistry. NY: Doubleday
  2. See Berke, Annie. Oct. 20, 2023. ‘Lessons in Chemistry and TV History.’ The New York Times.
  3. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, “Employed Persons by Detailed Occupation, Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity.”
  4. Andrea Widener, C&EN, “What US chemists made in 2022, according to the ACS salary survey.” Oct. 17, 2022. (Male chemists with a bachelor’s degree earned, on average $80,632, while female chemists with a bachelor’s earned only $62,433.)
  5. See, for example, Bertrand, Marianne, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence F. Katz. 2010. “Dynamics of the Gender Gap for Young Professionals in the Financial and Corporate Sectors.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2 (July):228­–255. https://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/app.2.3.228

About the author

Peter Meiksins, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of sociology at Cleveland State University and a contributing writer to SWE Magazine.