Negotiating Lessons Worth Remembering from Lessons in Chemistry

Negotiating Lessons Worth Remembering from Lessons in Chemistry

A friend recently recommended the hit Apple TV+ show, Lessons in Chemistry. Before you tune out, the show is less about chemistry or science than about gender roles and negotiating life. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of it, notwithstanding its long run on the New York Times bestseller list and transition to a hit TV series. 

The show received the Seal of Female Empowerment in Entertainment (SOFEE) award and it’s well-deserved as it casts light on the differential treatment of women in the sciences and beyond. Equally important, the show highlights that discriminatory treatment came not only from men, but from other women, and internally from women vis-à-vis themselves. Raising awareness about the breadth of this problem has been a passion of mine and is a recurring theme in my book, The Art of Feminine Negotiation. 

Unconscious gender bias grows under a patriarchal system and flourishes by virtue of the conditioning that comes from such a system. Some of the discriminatory standards, expectations and treatment are conscious while much is under the radar. It’s often the more insidious unconscious biases that wreak havoc and pose significant and dangerous threats. 

While the story is set in the 1940’s it’s interesting to observe where we’ve made progress, but also, to recognize where these problems are still pervasive. It was striking to me that there was some pushback by women against the show and allegations that the show reflected a ‘precarious version of feminism’. 

There was a complaint that the message was undercut because the main character, Elizabeth, was clearly exceptional. It was suggested that the discrimination angle would have more impact if the main character was an ‘average’ woman. This, to me, missed the point. The very fact that someone as exceptional as Elizabeth still could not achieve even basic recognition (let alone equal treatment) underlines the profound depths of the problem. 

There was also criticism that the few men in the show who showed a modicum of respect for women were given too much credit and praised for ‘doing the bare minimum’. Again, to me, this was, in part, the point. That was certainly the reality at that time, and frankly continues to be the reality to a large extent today. It’s only when we call out this habit and raise awareness about our conditioning and its impact that we can effect real change. 

Brie Larson plays the role of Elizabeth beautifully, capturing the complexity of the character and the issues at hand. Here’s just a sprinkling of the issues faced by the character:

  • Sexually assaulted by her professor and academic advisor at the culmination of her PhD – required to apologize to him if she desired to continue with her PhD (which she refused to do on principle) – told to consider herself lucky that her attacker wasn’t pressing aggravated assault charges when she defended herself 

  • Not able to serve as a chemist but only a lab tech (notwithstanding that her male counterparts consistently had to come to her for advice on how to solve the problems and notwithstanding that she was clearly the brightest mind in the lab

  • Even as a lab tech, not respected, expected to get the coffee etc. for her male colleagues 

  • Not afforded credit for her ground-breaking research – not allowed to publish the paper in her name or even as a co-author 

  • Had her work stolen by male colleagues 

  • Terminated for ‘getting herself knocked up’ as an unwed mother 

  • Alienated by both the men and women at the university – not accepted as a scientist and not accepted as a ‘woman’ because she wouldn’t conform to the expected beauty pageant approach expected of women 

Through all this adversity, Elizabeth remained true to herself and stood in a place of integrity. Negotiating with integrity is necessary. I mean this in both senses of the word – both being honest and having ‘moral uprightness’, and also being in a state of wholeness, in alignment with your values. 

As we negotiate our lives, both personally and professionally, it’s important to recognize the impact that unconscious gender bias may play. First, it’s critical to negotiate our own mindset to ensure that these biases and deep-seated historical and ongoing conditioning don’t have us showing up as smaller versions of ourselves. 

It’s important to contemplate the extent to which we support other women and help them rise up versus coming from a place of conditioned judgment or competition where we become part of the problem rather than solution. A rising tide lifts all boats. Changing our habits in this regard requires ruthless honesty and self-reflection. 

Coming from a place of confidence is key in any negotiation – whether in your personal relationships or in negotiating your career advancement or in the myriad of necessary daily negotiations we face. 

I invite you to check out the show, to reflect, and to start a meaningful dialogue about the advances we’ve made and also the areas where we still have a lot of work to do.  


Are you looking to up level your negotiation skills?

Please enjoy my TEDx Ocala talk
- Rise of the Feminine Voice as the Key to Our Future-  

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Click to play

How to Get What You Want from the Boardroom to the Bedroom

Negotiation skills are a woman’s secret weapon.

Art of Feminine Negotiation debunks myths and multi-generational gender conditioning that have stopped women from fully stepping into their power. Uncover the unconscious biases that have limited women from becoming the biggest and best versions of themselves. 


Learn the key skillsets that mark superior negotiators, explore how women already possess these skills in spades, and master how to start invoking these essential skills with intention in everyday life.


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