Phemale Physics

When I first expressed an interest in Physics in secondary school, I was repeatedly told that it was a boy’s subject and that I was very brave to consider it. Out of a year group of about 70 girls, there were only 2 of us who took it for A Level.
I am now in the second year of my Physics BSc with hopes of becoming a secondary school physics teacher.
I have just attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP UK) at the University of Oxford where I along with 100 other female physics students from all over the UK had the opportunity to meet and hear from various successful women in Physics.

CUWiP UK 2016... The future of Physics!
CUWiP UK 2016… The future of Physics!

I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learnt, the messages I’ve taken away and some personal thoughts on the subject of women in Physics.
Currently, only about 25% of physics students in the UK are women (the percentage is even smaller for postgraduates and researchers), a figure that has gone unchanged for the past 15 years. Why is this? What can be done to change it? And what is it like being part of that 25%?
I think that this imbalance is caused by gender bias introduced very early on in girls’ lives when girls are told that they are more suited to the sociable, softer and more vocational subjects. As a teenager, I remember thinking about careers that would be flexible and fit in with being a wife and a mother.
Another issue, which is actually a bit of a catch 22, is that in order to encourage more women to go into Physics, there needs to be more women in Physics in the first place, both as role models and as employers who can relate to the applicants.
There are plenty of male figures in popular science such as Brian Cox, David Attenborough and Stephen Hawking. But where are the female scientists? Even when a female scientist is occasionally featured on TV or in the news it is often said that they are making science “sexy” as opposed to being recognised for their work as their male counterparts are.
It’s not enough to just highlight the problems: how can we change all of this?
One possible solution is introducing enforced quotas, but I and many others feel that this will only lead to positive discrimination: women being told or feeling themselves that they are only in a job because they are women and not on the basis of their merits.
Another idea is changing the way Physics is portrayed in media, whether by featuring more prominent female scientists, or by changing fictional depictions of the field. A friend of mine pointed out to me that amongst the main characters in the show “The Big Bang Theory” all the ‘hardcore’ physicists were men and the women were biologists (very stereotypical roles), until a fuss was made and a female physicist was introduced as a main character.

I also think it’s important to present Physics differently to school students through outreach and teaching.
So, what’s it like being one of this rare and elusive species: a woman in physics?
An issue which was discussed during the conference is the ‘confidence gap’ between men and women. It is common to suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ at some point during one’s studies and career regardless of gender, but women seem to be significantly less confident about their abilities than men. Whether or not this is down to society’s prejudiced perception of women’s abilities, it is a serious problem and one that definitely affects me and so many others.
As women we are less likely to answer questions unless we are 100% sure that we know the answer, and even then will preface it with “This is probably wrong, but…”.
At the conference, we had a very inspiring talk by Dr Amanda Cooper-Sankar who told us that we need to start being able to say “I am very clever!” – something that most of us wouldn’t dream of saying because we simply don’t believe it, even when faced with concrete evidence of success.
I think that as women we need to start having more self-confidence otherwise no one will have confidence in us. We need to start saying “I am really clever!” as opposed to saying “Well, I’ve been very lucky…”. We need to stop thinking that we aren’t as clever or as talented as our colleagues and start believing in our own merits.
From a personal perspective, being a woman in Physics is mostly fantastic! I get to study the wonders of the universe every day, help to change people’s perceptions and perhaps one day leave my small, pink footprint on this men’s club.
When I am a teacher, I hope to inspire all of my students to be confident in themselves and to follow their dreams and interests regardless of what the world thinks.

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” – Albert Einstein

Astronomer Photographer of the Year at Greenwich Observatory

I’ve had a fleeting interest in photography for a while now. I did a GCSE in it (I got a B, hold the applause) and its been pretty fascinating to me ever since. I still find it amazing that with a bit of curved glass you can create all these peculiar effects, adding extra detail and emphasising things that the ordinary eye wouldn’t have picked out. It’s this interest that had me wandering out to Greenwich to go see the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibit at the Royal Observatory. Having been to Photographer of the Year exhibits before, I had an idea of what was going on at the Royal Observatory but it’s essentially a small pop up art gallery below the observatory.

The view from outside Greenwich Observatory
The view from outside Greenwich Observatory – (Sorry for the quality, it’s only my phone’s camera!)

Having marched up the side of a hill I wandered into the observatory just looking for somewhere to have a rest and accidentally found the exhibit straight away. It was quite a small room with the lights dimmed (to emphasise the actual pictures I presume) and small screens littered about with a video telling you about some of the stories of how the pictures were taken. Compared to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit this one seemed a bit pokey and tucked away, as if they didn’t particularly want it to be found. Once I started to actually look about the room, I couldn’t understand why! Every picture was astonishing in it’s own right, each with a different subject varying from far away nebulas to our own sun and even the northern lights. All the photographers had written little tales of how they’d come to take the picture (even the children’s category, which was suspiciously eloquent for something written for 7-11 year olds… I feel some parental “supervision” may have occurred, but that’s neither here nor there.) Some of these paragraphs spoke of long nights in Norway’s blistering cold, waiting for the perfect that never came until upon surrender, the night’s sky presented them with all they had wanted and so much more.

What caught me off guard was the lack of experience of some of these astrophotographers. Pictures that had been given honourable mentions in the competition or even won were taken by first timers with pretty basic cameras (iPads, phones and one that was a 6-month exposure of a home made pinhole camera!) This gave the exhibit a feeling that anyone could make it into the exhibit, making it all the more exciting knowing that even I could capture such overwhelming beauty on my phone (providing I know where to look, of course!) Of course, the more professional pictures were much more detailed using deep field images and solar flares as subject matter, taking the pictures with specifically designed home made instruments (one mosaic creator went and wrote some code to help organise and line up the vast amount of pictures he had taken of a nebula to create one fluid and highly detailed image.)

When I left the exhibit I felt like I had a greater understanding of scale in the universe. One of the pictures had shown the Moon and ISS “overlapping” each other, the space station taking up a tiny tiny tiny proportion of the Moon’s area in the picture (barely covering the smallest of visible craters in the picture.) Knowing how close the ISS is to Earth compared to the Moon, you suddenly realise just how tiny people are. Diagrams you see in school are obviously not drawn to scale but you still think that there’s probably some degree of accuracy to it. You’re shown the cliché pictures of the planets next to the Sun, the Sun next to other stars and so on but your head can’t quite grasp the actual meaning of this scale difference. Seeing exactly how small you are right in front of you in a real picture is quite different, almost unnerving in fact. It really cements in you just how large space is in comparison to your regular life.

The statue of Yuri Gagarin in the courtyard of the observatory was a welcome surprise. It reminded me of the effort people went to such a short time ago to take pictures that nowadays 7 year olds can on an iPad and how far we’ve come since then. When I walked out, I was greeted with a fantastic panorama of London’s skyline and felt compelled to take a picture. Not because it was something I don’t see often or because it was a pretty picture, but because I wanted a reminder that I’m not in space every day, I don’t come across these giant rocks on my way to Mile End every day before lectures and that there’s plenty down here on pokey little Earth to keep me busy for now.

Your friend and mine - its Yuri Gagarin!
Your friend and mine – its Yuri Gagarin!