Physicists from Europe and the UK meet at the IOP to discuss gender balance

15 November 2016

Physicists from several European countries shared perspectives on “Getting the diversity balance right in physics” at a European Physical Society conference hosted by the IOP on 27 October.

Physicists from Europe and the UK meet at the IOP to discuss gender balance

The conference, which was sponsored by the European Physical Society (EPS) and the Institute, looked at how far diversity is different across Europe and the US, how to improve diversity in business, and initiatives that could increase diversity.

Speakers included the chair of the IOP’s Juno Assessment Panel, Professor Val Gibson (pictured), who described the Project Juno programme; the chair of the EPS Forum Physics and Society, Professor Averil Macdonald; and those involved in physics and diversity issues from a wider sphere, such as Professor Lucia Di Ciaccio, honorary secretary and chair of the EPS equal opportunities committee, who is Professor in Physics at the University Savoie Mont Blanc, France.

She is a high-energy physicist working at CERN and said that among the physicists involved in its ATLAS collaboration, around 19% are women, but the percentage of women among its scientific authors decreases with age, mirroring similar studies within the physics community. This could be because the gender balance is improving for younger women, or because of the “leaky pipeline” effect, in which women drop out or do not reach senior positions as they get older.

Across Europe, the proportion of people with a doctorate in physics who are women was the most encouraging in Portugal, Italy, Spain and Ireland, where the figure is more than 45%, but Germany and Sweden showed the fastest improvement, she said. A survey of research-performing organisations in Europe looked at what proportion of them had adopted gender equality plans and measures and found that this varied widely in different countries, from as little as 10% to more than 80%. The most commonly adopted measures were those to improve work–life balance; the least common were those providing support for leadership development, she noted.

Macdonald said that in the UK the proportion of physics A-level students, physics undergraduates, postdocs and lecturers who are women had all stayed stubbornly at around 20% for the last 35 years, while for more senior positions the figure nosedived. “Despite everything, we have failed,” she said. “Something we are doing in the UK is making it go horribly wrong.”

Her “eureka moment” had come when she became involved in a Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) study, “Not for people like me”. Among its findings were that girls tend more than boys to describe themselves using adjectives i.e. to say what they are like, rather than using verbs, which describe what they do. However, careers literature about science has tended to highlight the verbs, she said.

She gave out copies of a WISE booklet, “People like me: learn how girls are happy and successful at work”, which had been used to open girls’ eyes to the huge range of opportunities available to them, she said. It had been particularly successful in working with mothers and their daughters, as mothers generally wanted their daughters to be happy above all. “Successful would be nice, but happy comes first,” she said.

She also highlighted the importance of language in job advertising. Some research had been done to test the appeal of adverts with either “masculine” or “feminine” language in the job description and it showed that women were put off by “masculine” language but men were not put off by “feminine” words, she said. “You can put feminine language into the advert and the men won’t notice. They don’t get a sense of not belonging.” This meant that changing the language used in advertising was a risk-free measure, she argued. Nobody had realised that their reaction to the language was being tested as it was so subliminal, she said.

Karen Davies, head of learning, research and resources at the Science Museum, spoke about the importance of informal learning in engaging young people with physics. BP, King’s College London and the Science Museum had collaborated on some research into science capital – the amount of science-related knowledge, attitudes, skills and experiences that young people have, which is affected by their school, home, everyday life and out-of-school activities – such as visits to places like the museum.

The research found that 5% of young people have high, 58% have medium and 27% have low science capital. Speaking of people’s encounters with the world of science through science museums, she said: “Many students and parents from working-class and/or minority ethnic communities find us disorientating and off-putting because they don’t know the rules of the game, they feel visibly and culturally different and the dominant culture of science as white, male and middle-class is reinforced rather than challenged.” Addressing these barriers had to be a collaborative effort as no one person or institution could tackle them alone, she argued.

Dr Arti Agrawal, a lecturer at City University with a research expertise in photonics, gave an overview of diversity in STEM subjects in the US and the approaches being taken there to achieve a better gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She mentioned several top-down initiatives from government in the US, including a grant of $3m over five years that was available to develop, implement and study innovative change strategies to foster gender equality.

Sarah Greasley, distinguished engineer and technical director at IBM UK, spoke about the business imperative of diversity and how it underpins IBM’s programmes and recruitment and retention policies.

The IOP’s chief executive, Professor Paul Hardaker, said the IOP had had an ambitious programme for diversity for more than a decade. He said the Institute would be keen to hear the outcomes of the discussion and feedback sessions to learn whether there was more that the IOP could do to move the diversity agenda forward.