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Diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion: a collective enterprise

3 July 2020

Ahead of announcing the first awardees of the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, Paul Hardaker and Rachel Youngman write about how we must work together to achieve greater inclusiveness and diversity within physics.

A couple of years ago, we got a call late one afternoon from our former President Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Jocelyn was phoning to let us know that she was to receive the Breakthrough Prize for Science.

Often called the Oscars of the Science world, the Breakthrough Prize was a richly deserved honour for a remarkable physicist. What made the news truly astonishing, however, was Jocelyn’s decision to donate the £2.3m prize money to the Institute of Physics (IOP) for a scholarship fund to support women, and others currently under-represented in physics, through their PhD studies.

As news of the donation broke and a hectic round of press interviews followed, we were able to reflect on what it meant for the physics community and our organisation. On one level the message was very simple – it gave an opportunity to provide financial support for those who would otherwise struggle to continue into their PhDs. But it also said something else: here was a world-renowned physicist, who has made no secret of the barriers she had to overcome from early education through to her research career, saying that everyone can do physics.

It doesn’t matter what gender you are, your accent, which school you went to, nor your ethnicity, sexual identity or disability: you can do it.

Now, amid our preparations to announce the first Bell Burnell awardees, we are reflecting further on physics, gender and the wider issues of diversity that we have committed to tackling under the IOP’s new strategy. Specifically, we have been thinking about how we all need to work together, as a physics community, to remove the barriers and injustices that prevent so many people from participating in this wonderful discipline that unlocks so much opportunity.

A good place to start when thinking about the current situation on gender diversity in physics is to look at our own membership. 17% of IOP members are women. That’s one third of the 51% it would be if our membership were to perfectly reflect the population of the UK and Ireland. For men or women who are Black, LGBT+, have a disability, or are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, membership rates are even further out of step with the population as a whole.

At present, more boys than girls are studying physics in schools. Until that is changed, it is hard to see how we will achieve similar numbers of men and women from all backgrounds entering the profession. So the first step towards gender parity has to be a dramatic increase in participation in physics for girls and young women.

This goal is not new. We have done a great deal of work over many years to increase physics participation among girls. And, while clearly there is a long way to go, we have made some progress. In the younger echelons of the IOP community the proportion of female associate members is 24%. This is a sign of progress and increased numbers of younger female members will filter through to the wider community with time.

But we cannot simply wait for time to solve this problem. Women remain proportionally under-represented among fellows, at 8%, but interestingly among honorary fellows it is 24%.

In other areas of the organisation, women are represented in higher numbers than the overall proportion of women within the membership body. In fact, at all levels of the IOP’s governance, female participation is at or higher than the 17% of women within the membership as a whole. The proportion of female officers is 18% or over for 40 out of 51 Special Interest Groups.

Among our Branch committees, female membership is above 17% in all but two regions. And we currently have equal numbers of men and women serving on our Council.

It is important to recognise successes where we have them, and we have started to move the dial towards better representation of women in physics. But there is obviously a long way still to go. And, there are several other groups that have historically been under-represented within the physics community. For this reason, our focus is broadening out from gender, which has been on our radar for several years, to include race, sexuality and gender identity, disability and socioeconomic background.

How will this greater change come about? Part of the answer is strategy. We are looking at this in terms of a pipeline. Our campaign – the biggest social action our organisation has ever undertaken – will start in the autumn and is focused on using our resources, and leveraging all the influence we have with government, schools, communities and the media to increase participation in physics for young Black people, girls, young people with disabilities, young members of the LGBT+ community, and young people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds – five groups that have for too long experienced barriers to a career in or with physics.

But we also know that persuading young people to study physics is only meaningful if we can back that up with reforms to the system they will go on to work within. Workplaces need to be positive and inclusive environments for everyone. People need clear career pathways, with appropriate training opportunities that broaden access to physics.

But this won’t work as a ‘top-down’ initiative. Another part of the answer is engagement within today’s physics community. We all have to ensure that any person looking at this profession is clear that they will be welcome within it. As the professional body for physicists this means that all aspects of our activity should reflect as far as possible the diversity we want to see. That must be through the people presenting at our public events, the committees engaging with the public, the names of the physicists commemorated in the awards we give out – and the individuals who receive those awards.

In other words, the inclusive and diverse profession we present to the world can only be a reflection of the physics community as a whole. We often share our members’ frustrations that there is not greater diversity, for example in our awards and medals. That is not to detract from the recognition that those who do receive awards deserve – indeed many of our recent recipients have worked extensively to promote diversity in their own places of study and work.

For the first time in the IOP’s history, we are recognising technicians with a new award for excellence and in our Honorary Fellowships. But we know that our organisation can only reflect diversity if the whole physics community works together to fix systemic barriers that prevent large sections of our society from coming into physics and then flourishing within an inclusive environment.

Put simply, an important way to improve recognition of women and minorities in physics is for members of the community to nominate more people from under-represented groups for awards.

We believe the key to achieving greater diversity in physics is by working together at all levels within the organisation and community. That means ensuring that we are all listening to a range of voices and sometimes having conversations where others may challenge our views. We must continue to recognise the importance of many members’ lived experience of discrimination and marginalisation, and the great value they bring to our shared understanding of the issues we are trying to tackle.

We will be asking our members to share their experiences in support of the campaign we mentioned earlier in this article. Recently we were saddened to see talented and energetic people in our community, frustrated with the pace of change, standing down from positions within the IOP’s committee structure where they could make a big difference.

As we look forward to announcing the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund awardees, launching our campaign and delivering on the ambitions of our strategy, there is another theme to our thinking and reflective learning that we want to share. It is essential that we are fully transparent about inclusion and diversity. In preparing this article we have reviewed data that we collect regularly and feed back to our committees, but have not proactively shared more widely.

We need to tell the story of our work and its impact. We need to create a sense of shared pride and challenge. And in the context of so many important campaigns for equality and social justice, we need to be fully held to account with our members and stakeholders, and open to scrutiny and new ideas.

So, we ourselves are working towards a Juno award and have set ourselves the ambitious target of becoming Juno Champions within three years of gaining our first Juno Practitioner award. It is only right, whilst demanding that other workplaces adopt positive practices towards gender equality, that we do so ourselves. We will also take opportunities to publish data about our own work as an employer.

For example, although we are not required to under the legislation, we have already begun to make voluntary declarations of IOP’s Gender Pay Gap. Our data shows that we are amongst those organisations with the smallest gender pay gap in the country.

We are two members of an Executive Team that reflects diversity in gender, ethnicity and background. We have different personal and professional experiences and this creates diversity of thought and healthy, positive challenge in our conversations. What we have in common is an absolute commitment to the goals of our strategy, and to being open to fresh thinking about what we do and how we do it. As we think about inclusivity and diversity in physics, we do so with Dame Jocelyn’s messages firmly in our minds: everyone can do physics.

It is up to every one of us in the physics community to make this a reality.

If you have questions about anything we have touched upon in this article, please do get in touch by emailing [email protected]. We are developing a set of FAQs and will add questions from members to this document.

Paul Hardaker, CEO, and Rachel Youngman, Deputy Chief Executive