Continuing her groundbreaking research, Bell Burnell went on to find three more pulsars. Her friends were more interested in her love life, though, and when she got engaged to be married between pulsars two and three, this was all they spoke about. Bell Burnell wore her engagement ring to the lab, but later regretted it, as she says it was seen as a signal to the scientific community that she was quitting her research: “Society expected young women to get married, not make major astronomical discoveries!”

When Bell Burnell became pregnant, it presented new challenges to an already difficult research career. She explains that there was a consensus that “if mothers work, the children will become delinquent”, and no-one quite understood why she wasn’t delighted at the prospect of becoming a housewife. “You’ve got a husband, a new baby and a new house and you say you’re bored – what’s wrong with you?” another woman once said to her.

But attitudes in general were changing and Bell Burnell believes her generation experienced a turning point; for the first time, women could have successful professional careers alongside running a family. It was tough, though, and a woman’s career was not deemed as important as a man’s. Once, when her son was taken ill at school and the teachers couldn’t get hold of Bell Burnell because she was working at a telescope, they turned to him and asked “You’re not so ill we have to disturb daddy are you?”

Bell Burnell’s career, which “felt like snakes and ladders”, has spanned right across the academic spectrum, just as her research career has spanned the electromagnetic spectrum. She has been a researcher, a university lecturer, a tutor, a manager, a professor, a head of department, a dean, a principal researcher, an outreach ambassador and IOP president.

Lessons still to learn

Despite her own success, Bell Burnell is concerned that “younger women think the battles have all been fought”. The statistics are still bad – women are still under-represented in physics, and it gets worse in senior positions, where women progress more slowly than men and are less successful when they put in grant or job applications.

Bell Burnell describes how the attitude for solving this problem is often “Fix the women!” – make them braver, give them special training to address their inability to communicate and so on. However, this assumes the problem is with women, not with the scientific community or society in general. Bell Burnell notes that, while individuals may be fine, flawed institutional structures and policy can nurture bias.

To this end, she identified that universities would only become more gender balanced if they were competing for something. This revelation led to the creation of Athena SWAN – the world’s first award scheme to recognize commitment to women’s academic careers. Bell Burnell was pivotal in establishing the scheme in 2005, which is a gender-equality charter for university departments that challenges people to address and stop institutional sexism. But, she says, there is still a long way to go.

Bell Burnell concluded her IOP President’s Medal lecture with the infamous quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” This is a statement that perfectly describes her fight against the expectations of society and her career that continues to inspire both men and women today.

Sarah Tesh is features editor of Physics World and Jess Wade is a postdoc at the Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London, UK, @TeshSarah and @jesswade