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Diversity and inclusion

‘A week in which good practice and frustrations could be shared honestly’

31 Jul 2017 Sarah Tesh
Nicola Wilkin
Warm welcome: Nicola Wilkin welcomed an international audience.

By Sarah Tesh 

The International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWiP) was everything I hoped it would be – a fascinating event full of interesting discussions, talks and workshops, and inspiring women. Held at the University of Birmingham in the UK from 16 to 20 July, the conference was organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).

Over a series of blogs, Jess Wade from Imperial College London and myself have endeavoured to give you an insight into the conference – the international stories, the iconic women and the important hurdles still to overcome. To round this up and reflect upon the inspirational event, I spoke to conference chair Nicola Wilkin from the University of Birmingham.

“From the moment that Averil Macdonald started her icebreaker session, I knew that the programme we had put together was going to resonate with the fantastic, global audience that we had been able to bring together,” says Wilkin. “The Sun shone on us as well for that first all-important evening, facilitating the start of a week in which good practice and frustrations could be shared honestly.”

A key theme of ICWiP was that across all cultures, women are still in the minority in physics – and this only gets worse further up the academic pipeline. Discussions took place all week about how to combat the contributing factors such as unconscious bias and stereotyping, and it will be interesting to see how these translate into future practice. “I hope that further Project Juno type activities will be implemented across other nations,” says Wilkin, “as this has given us an infrastructure within which we can persuade people that they can speak out about workplace practices which are detrimental to all, and particularly women.”

For Wilkin, the “adrenalin peak” came when they veered from the published programme for a surprise address from Malala Yousafzai. “There were many damp eyes among the delegates, and also the university co-ordinator,” explains Wilkin. “I felt lost for words listening to her on the podium. Her powerful message will be remembered by all – and her commitment to our cause, which meant she fitted us into a phenomenally busy flight schedule.”

Another highlight for Wilkin was when she welcomed the delegates in the opening address. “I needed to remind myself that this predominantly female audience really was a physics one! This in itself was incredibly empowering. As I stood there I also felt that this was part of demonstrating ‘a working physics mother’ rather directly to my daughter who was in the audience as part of our fantastic student guide team.”

The conference will hopefully meet for the seventh time in 2020 and Wilkin hopes to see ideas and strategies for helping women get further through the academic pipeline – “I believe in a number of developing countries we have improved the early-stage career and we need to ensure that we have working practices in place to help these women thrive, and succeed rapidly.”

Until then, keep an eye out over the coming months for a feature on the great Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who received the Institute of Physics President’s Medal at ICWiP, and for a couple of podcasts on women in physics, which will include interviews with ICWiP delegates.

A special thanks must go to IUPAP, the Institute of Physics, the University of Birmingham and sponsors for organizing, hosting and funding such a great event. I’ve used the word inspirational a lot over these blogs, but it really is the best word to describe ICWiP. I am looking forward to ICWiP 2020 and hope to see you there!

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