Women in physics

Frances Downey reports back on an international conference aimed at driving up the number of female physicists

, 2 November 2008

Walking into the third International Conference for Women in Physics was always going to be an experience like no other. Usually, when attending physics conferences you are one of few women in a room full of men. Instead I was greeted by a sea of women’s faces. As Professor Maki Kawai from the University of Tokyo said, it was “a conference very different from other physics conferences – the ladies room was always crowded.”

I was one of 11 delegates to travel to Seoul, South Korea, for the conference. With over 70 countries involved, the female physicists present were from a truly diverse set of backgrounds, including women from Argentina, Botswana, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Honduras, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sudan, Russia, South Africa, Trinidad & Tobago, the United States, Vietnam, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

I am a second year biophysics PhD student and, although I have been a member of the Institute of Physics’ Women in Physics group since I was an undergraduate, to my shame I have never really got involved in what they did. However, I was bought up by a feminist mother and have always held the view that women should have the same opportunity as men to do whatever it is they want to do, so when I saw the chance to apply to go to this year’s conference I jumped at it.

The problems faced by women in physics in a lot of countries have little to do with the fact that they are women studying physics, and more to do with the fact that they are women

The first ICWIP conference was held in Paris in 2002. It produced a list of recommendations aimed at increasing the number of girls choosing to study physics and retaining women once they were active in research. Some of the recommendations included: ensuring there were policies that enabled girls and boys to have the same opportunities to study physics and to achieve success, and for funding agencies to make sure there was no gender bias on grants, often occurring through limits put on the age of eligibility or the grant duration that seriously disadvantage applicants taking, or who have taken, family leave.

The 2008 conference was a chance for the delegates to reflect on progress made since 2002 and to put forward ideas as to how progress could continue. Several things became apparent: first, if you put a bit of time, money and imaginative thinking into your projects then girls will get involved and go on to study physics at a higher level – there is worldwide proof that these schemes work. Planning a coherent country-wide policy is key, and we must find a way to further promote projects that currently exist only on a local level.

Secondly, the problems faced by women in physics in a lot of countries have little to do with the fact that they are women studying physics, and more to do with the fact that they are women. In Sudan, 48% of their undergraduate students are women – encouraging women to study physics doesn’t seem to be a problem, yet this drops to under 4% once they reach the PhD level as women are expected to marry, and we were told may find they can only carry on studying if their husbands and families allow it.

It became clear there was a very obvious divide between ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries. This was crystallised for me while sitting in a discussion group on grants and funding. While debating various resolutions to put forward at the end of the conference, the representative from Norway suggested that all decision-making bodies should be made up of at least 30% women. That may be an achievable aim for Norway, but we were sitting next to a woman from Tanzania where they have only ever had 10 physics PhD students, two of whom were women. What good would a resolution like that be to her?

She needed a resolution that she could take back and present to her country as something that was achievable. However, creating catchall, inclusive resolutions means you end up with something quite vague – it was a conundrum we came across time and again as the conference progressed.

Many of the physicists are fighting to keep women in the field through very difficult circumstances, but in every society they are finding their own way and successfully increasing the representation of women in the field

One of the other group sessions that stood out was the presentation about JUNO, a UK Institute of Physics project aimed at making university physics departments address the under-representation of women within their departments. There are two stages to JUNO, the first is to become a supporter by endorsing the five principles as set out in the code of practice and the second is to become a champion once the five principles have been put into place.

junocopcover.gifCurrently 50% of UK physics departments are signed up to JUNO (so, if you know any young women or men planning to study or already studying physics, get them to find out if the university they have chosen is a supporter of JUNO, and if not, why not?) What made the session really interesting were the questions: why would physics departments sign up to do this? The answer is that under the UK’s Gender Equality Duty, if a department gains champion status they will be in line with legislation on gender equality.

What JUNO highlights is the UK’s success in promoting women in physics and how government legislation is coming together with IOP initiatives to reinforce this. The IOP is seen as a real leader in this field and their accomplishment is such that they are now sharing their work on everything from physics in primary schools to advice on career breaks with other learned and professional societies within the UK.

Women working in physics in the UK have benefited from the current government’s belief in the importance of science, engineering and technology to the productivity and competitiveness of the economy. The emphasis placed on getting more young people into these fields has also resulted in further attention being paid to underrepresented groups. As well as the IOP working in this area, there is the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, the government’s primary national initiative that aims to address the under-representation of women, and MentorSET, run by the Women’s Engineering Society which is a mentoring scheme for women.

Going to Seoul and meeting delegates from different countries was an amazing and inspiring experience. Speaking to female physicists from around the world, you realise that many of them are fighting to keep women in the field through very difficult circumstances, but in every society they are finding their own way and successfully increasing the representation of women in the field. ICWIP is important in this process because it gives us all a forum in which to share ideas, and recognise and applaud each other’s achievements.

Leaving Seoul, I felt proud of the UK and the IOP, we are definitely ahead of a lot of countries when it comes to encouraging girls into physics and then retaining them once they are there. However, we should not become complacent – there is still work to be done and I plan to continue working with the team of women I went out to South Korea with to build on the successes they have already had.

Frances Downey is a female physicist working in London. When not in a dark room working with a laser, she spends her time working to promote good science to the public as an active member of the Voice of Young Science network. She has been involved the VoYS publications Standing Up For Science and There Goes the Science Bit…

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