Levelling the physics field Female physicists who want to succeed in the workplace often face barriers that their male counterparts do not. Jennifer Dyer looks at how initiatives by the Institute of Physics, and other organizations, can help improve the careers of women in physics
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We can all surely agree that everyone who wants a career in physics – men and women alike – should be given the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and especially in physics, is well documented, despite there being plenty of evidence that the presence of women in a t eam enhance s g r oup c o l l abor a t i on and performance (Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 36 2). I nde e d , Aar hu s Uni v e r s i t y s c i enc e h i storian Mathias Wullum Nielsen, and University of California, Merced sociologist Sharla Alegri, together with colleagues at a workshop held at Stanford University in February 2016, found that having more women in science leads to an “innovation dividend”. Their research showed that gender diversity leads to smarter and “more creative” teams, all of which ultimately has a positive impact on scientif ic discover y i t self (PNAS 114 1740).
Even more recently, a report published in January 2018 by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company – entitled Delivering through Diversity – re-examined the link between diversity (both gender and racial) and a company’s company financial outperformance. Having analysed global datasets of more than 1000 firms in 12 countries, they found there are clearly more beneficial financial results for companies with more diversity in top management and on the board. Correlation does not equal causation, but the study concludes that “more diverse companies…are better able to win
Gender gap Workshops can combat t he i solat ion some women f eel while doing physic s PhDs.
top talent, improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decisionmaking and all that leads to a vir tuous cycle of increasing returns”.
So, there is growing evidence that diverse teams are more productive and inspire more creativity, which , in turn, is likely to result in tangible benefits to the physics and wider scientific community. Yet, a recent Royal Society Career Pathway Tracker report – which followed the careers of those who had been awarded a University Research Fellowship or Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship from the society – found that 73% of male research fellows had become professors, as compared to 58% of female fellows. The report also found that men took a shorter time to achieve a chair or a similarly senior position, obtaining it in 4.6 years on average, compared to 5.8 years for women. All this suggests that we need to do more to get more women into STEM subjects, and that we have a way to go to ensure that we keep them here.
At the Institute of Physics (IOP), we have been working on these is sues for more than a decade, embarking on an ambitious programme to improve uptake of A-level physics among girls in schools. Through our Improving Gender Balance project, we trialled different school interventions – separately and combined – to help boost the confidence and resilience of girls, to improve their experience in the physics classroom, and ad d r e s s t h e i mpac t o f un c o n s c i o u s b i a s and gender stereotyping.
We found that a combined approach that includes addressing confidence and resilience, improving experiences, and dealing with unconscious bias, radically affected the number of girls taking AS-level physics in the participating schools, with the number more than trebling over two years. With research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) showing that boys are three times more likely than girls to be given a STEM toy for Christmas, it is clear that we need to address gender stereotyping at all
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