Female physicists who want to succeed in the workplace often face barriers that their male counterparts do not. Jennifer Dyer looks at how initiatives by the Institute of Physics, and other organizations, can help improve the careers of women in physics
We can all surely agree that everyone who wants a career in physics – men and women alike – should be given the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and especially in physics, is well documented, despite there being plenty of evidence that the presence of women in a team enhances group collaboration and performance (Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 36 2). Indeed, Aarhus University science historian Mathias Wullum Nielsen, and University of California, Merced sociologist Sharla Alegri, together with colleagues at a workshop held at Stanford University in February 2016, found that having more women in science leads to an “innovation dividend”. Their research showed that gender diversity leads to smarter and “more creative” teams, all of which ultimately has a positive impact on scientific discovery itself (PNAS 114 1740).
Even more recently, a report published in January 2018 by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company – entitled Delivering through Diversity – re-examined the link between diversity (both gender and racial) and a company’s company financial outperformance. Having analysed global datasets of more than 1000 firms in 12 countries, they found there are clearly more beneficial financial results for companies with more diversity in top management and on the board. Correlation does not equal causation, but the study concludes that “more diverse companies…are better able to win top talent, improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision-making and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns”.
So, there is growing evidence that diverse teams are more productive and inspire more creativity, which , in turn, is likely to result in tangible benefits to the physics and wider scientific community. Yet, a recent Royal Society Career Pathway Tracker report – which followed the careers of those who had been awarded a University Research Fellowship or Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship from the society – found that 73% of male research fellows had become professors, as compared to 58% of female fellows. The report also found that men took a shorter time to achieve a chair or a similarly senior position, obtaining it in 4.6 years on average, compared to 5.8 years for women. All this suggests that we need to do more to get more women into STEM subjects, and that we have a way to go to ensure that we keep them here.
At the Institute of Physics (IOP), we have been working on these issues for more than a decade, embarking on an ambitious programme to improve uptake of A-level physics among girls in schools. Through our Improving Gender Balance project, we trialled different school interventions – separately and combined – to help boost the confidence and resilience of girls, to improve their experience in the physics classroom, and address the impact of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping.
‘Look happy dear, you’ve just made a discovery’
We found that a combined approach that includes addressing confidence and resilience, improving experiences, and dealing with unconscious bias, radically affected the number of girls taking AS-level physics in the participating schools, with the number more than trebling over two years. With research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) showing that boys are three times more likely than girls to be given a STEM toy for Christmas, it is clear that we need to address gender stereotyping at all ages, so that boys and girls have parity in career choices.
Alongside our Improving Gender Balance work is Project Juno – the IOP’s initiative to recognize and reward good practice in addressing the under-representation of women at all levels in physics, be it at university departments or research institutes. Launched in 2007, the Juno award is based on six principles that organizations work towards addressing, to achieve their Juno Practitioner or Juno Champion status. Applications are “peer reviewed” by a panel of physicists, and we conduct site visits to provide supportive and constructive feedback on progress.
But Juno is more than a project about fixing only the gender imbalance. It is based on openness, transparency and improving the working environment for all, and the project aims to promote the development of our next generation of physics leaders. Some of the Juno work in universities has been transformational, opening up recruitment, promotions and leadership selection, ensuring that everyone in physics has the opportunity to progress. A head of a physics department in a university once said that taking part in Juno “gives a message of equality, that women can do it based on capability, that promotion is open to any gender”.
Over the course of a PhD, women report feeling more isolated and having less contact with their supervisors
Research done by the IOP as well as other institutions has also found that over the course of a PhD (and any subsequent postdoctoral contracts), women’s aspirations to remain in scientific research decline, as they report less satisfaction with their doctorate, feeling more isolated and they have less contact with their supervisors or principal investigators. To help with this, the IOP runs career workshops for physics students that promote leadership development and highlight career pathways in and out of academia. We also provide a Carers’ Fund – a grant of up to £250 – that any members of the IOP who wish to attend an event or conference can apply to.
Others across the science community are also doing their bit. We know that returning from a career break can be daunting, and the IOP works closely with the Daphne Jackson Trust – a charity dedicated to helping STEM professionals who have taken a career break of two years or more and want to return to research. Its fellowship scheme is open to both men and women who have taken a career break for a number of reasons, including raising a child, looking after an elderly parent or health issues. The Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign encourages companies to engage with its Ten Steps framework that ensures women in STEM have the same career progression opportunities as men. AdvanceHE, a higher-education charity in the UK, runs the Aurora leadership initiative for women in higher education, and many physicists have benefited from taking part in this year-long programme.
These and many other initiatives will support and encourage women to pursue lifelong physics and STEM careers. This will, in turn, hopefully ensure that a future in science is inviting, open and inclusive to everyone, which will ultimately benefit the whole of physics.