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.
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