Nabihah Rahman


By the time I complete my physics degree, I will have been taught by more men called Jonathan (or some variation thereof) than women. That isn’t to say that I regret having been taught by the Jonathans, but rather that the diversity in physics, and especially in teaching, is very disheartening to see. You could say that this is just reflective of how many women are physicists in general; it’s pointless to expect half of my lecturers to be women, right? But I think that there are more underlying causes for such a large gender gap in teaching, ones that are actively preventing and deterring women from teaching.

It’s all too easy to believe that conscious sexism in physics has been eradicated; it feels incomprehensible that people with such views would work in academia. As recently as September 2018, physicist Alessandro Strumia proclaimed, at a gender workshop at CERN to an audience of mostly female early career researchers, that women were less capable than men at physics research and that they have been unfairly promoted to positions of power. This man was involved in hiring at CERN and the University of Pisa. If there is evidence for one person to declare such reprehensible beliefs publicly, I dread to think how many others there are who share such ideas behind closed doors. If sexism like this exists in hiring committees, it is only inevitable that there would be few women teaching physics.

You may also wonder why it even matters that we have women as lecturers. Isn’t it the case that all lecturers teach the same content, regardless of their gender? For many, teachers are the figures that inspire us to pursue an area of study. When a young woman sees another woman who has successfully climbed the career ladder teaching her, that same young woman is in the position to think that the career path of an academic is something that is accessible to her. Conversely, when you are not taught by any women, you have to question why that is, and what that says about the culture of your field of study and your institution. It may mean little to you, but so much to someone else.

What do women working in physics today think about the lack of women teaching physics? I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Dr Abbey Waldron, who is currently a neutrino physicist at Imperial and is about to become a lecturer in the next academic year.

Dr. Abbey Waldron
· Where do you think we are losing the women?

I don’t think it’s necessarily a decision about ‘am I going to teach?’ or ‘am I not going to teach?’. It’s important to think about when the gender imbalance happens. When I was a graduate student, it didn’t strike me that there were actually that few women going into postgraduate research compared to how many undergraduates there were, so I don’t think that’s really the stage where we’re losing all the women. What happens after you do a PhD is you have one or more (typically two or three) temporary research positions. It is exceptionally rare for some new department to open and you go on to become a lecturer after your PhD; you generally have to do these temporary positions before you become a lecturer. There can also be long periods of time between when you finish your PhD and when you have the opportunity to apply for a lectureship job. This phase here is where we’re really losing the women.

Temporary research jobs also don’t come up that often and you might have to relocate; the general assumption is that in order to have exposure to enough jobs, at some point you’re going to have to move. These contracts can be 1 year, 2 years, 3 years … and I think this is something that really negatively impacts women wanting to stay in the field, and there’s probably a lot of reasons why this is. One thing I think women worry about is having a child and going on maternity leave if they’re not on a permanent contract, especially in the UK. Everyone has this idea that you should have a house and a permanent job before you have a child. If you’re going to do that and you have to wait for an indefinite amount of time before you get a permanent job, then maybe for women, society is also telling them (which is also not true) that they’re going to find it harder to have a child. At some point it becomes true, but it is very artificial that from a young age we’re like ‘by that point you have to have kids otherwise it’s going to be too late’. I think a lot of people still think that, and they think that if they don’t get a permanent job by then, they have to choose between having a career and having children.

· Do you think the academic setup of physics makes it more difficult for women to pursue teaching?

There are some things that individual universities cannot do much about. A lot of it is coming from funding agencies. When funding is allocated, you get, say, a four-year grant, so you can’t offer a post-doctoral position for longer than four years. At some level there isn’t the same number of lectureships as there are PhD positions, so at some point you have to get rid of a lot of people, so this ‘post-doctoral hazing’ is a way of getting down the numbers. I think this whole process forces out a lot more women than it does men. It’s an issue for minorities as well. If you’re a heterosexual white man, you can go to a lot of places in the world and feel mostly fine, without worrying about being in danger or having no one else there who is like you. But for a lot of other people, universities might be located in places where they feel uncomfortable or unsafe living in, and I think that is a barrier to mobility.

I don’t think physics is like ‘we’re going to be sexist’, but because of the way physics is and the way society is sexist, those two things combine to force women out. It doesn’t take much vision to see how this could happen, and you could maybe consider changing the way your field is set up so it’s not pushing all the women out… but no one really talks about this.

· Some institutions, including Imperial, ensure that there is at least one woman shortlisted when considering applications for new teaching roles. What do you make of hiring practices like this?

Making sure there is one woman on the shortlist is such a low bar when there are so many great female researchers in the field. At least half of the good candidates will probably be female, so why are they only interviewing one of them? But this is not the real problem. The real problem is they are not considering women for these jobs for whatever reason; if they shortlist six people and think that making sure one of those people is a woman is going to make selection more fair, what on earth were they doing before? If they’re having to do something like that, they have to really look at how sexist they’re being. Unless for whatever reason your university has a reputation of being sexist or somewhere women would not want to go, and I would suggest Imperial has managed to get this reputation, even in the face of all the structural problems, there is no way that there is no more than one good female candidate applying to the job.

It is known outside Imperial that the gender balance is ridiculous and then the question is – did this happen by chance? A lot of female physicists would think ‘maybe it happened by chance, or maybe it’s just all men there; but even so, if everyone there is a man and everyone who is getting promoted is a man – am I going to get promoted if I get a job there?’. I wouldn’t rule out that fewer women would apply to a department that is all male.

· An analysis of 14 million reviews of university lecturers found that male professors are routinely considered more knowledgeable, more objective, and talented [1]. In ‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez, this phenomenon is titled ‘brilliance bias’ [2]. Why do you think these perceptions have been allowed to thrive?

Times are changing (I hope) but people still have sexist ideas and it’s just known that mostly male students will end up giving better reviews to men, and in general, people that look like them. These biases exist in society and on the one hand they should be fixed, and on the other hand they should be acknowledged and not be used to give promotions. For example, promotions to professors at Imperial have been in part based on these reviews by the largely male undergraduate population. This metric, which they know is sexist, will then be used to decide whether women get promotions. So, then we’re in this horrible feedback loop where lecturers are not becoming professors, and maybe that’s one of the things that make students perceive them as more competent – if they had ‘Professor’ as their title instead of ‘Lecturer’.  If you don’t intervene in that sexist loop, then you can allow the problem to perpetuate.

Question for the reader: how often have you questioned how well something has been taught to you / explained by a female member of staff compared to a male member of staff?

· What are you most looking forward to about being a lecturer?

I’m looking forward to teaching; I teach a bit already, but it would be nice to teach in a different capacity and have more PhD students. I can be on my own research path, and I really appreciate that. The whole research freedom thing is very important and pretty much all scientists are after that. Setting the research direction for your students is very exciting!

· How much does it mean to you to be a role model to other female physicists?

Seeing role models is always good, if not for any other reason than if you see someone up there who looks like you then you believe you can get there too. It upsets me all the time that there are not more women around and I think it’s ridiculous and I want that to change. If people are seeing me and thinking ‘okay, this is great, I want to stay in physics now’ then for me, that’s wonderful. That’s what I want – trying to encourage as many young women as possible that this is a great career, and they should go into it.

· What advice would you give to women in academia (post-docs and researchers) who might be thinking about going into teaching?

If you want to do research and you want to do teaching, then absolutely go for it! It’s a great career and it’s very rewarding… and we need to stop losing good women in our field! I think there are a lot of sexist issues, and it’s been very annoying and upsetting sometimes, but I don’t think it’s something that’s held me back in my career, like I don’t think I’ve been denied a job or a promotion. I don’t think there’s a reason to warn women off going into the field, but there is a reason to tell universities to get their acts together and make sure they hire more women!


To reiterate Abbey’s final point, despite the many structural issues surrounding why so few women teach physics, I still want to be optimistic about the future of physics education. The fact that there are people like Abbey who are pursuing teaching, and so many wonderful female undergraduate students at Imperial who I just know are going to be amazing researchers, demonstrates that there is hope. Perhaps in ten- or twenty-years’ time, there will be many young women who have been inspired by the brilliant female physicists I have had the privilege of meeting over the course of my degree … and maybe a Jonathan here and there. 


References

[1] Bates L. Females academics face huge sexist bias – no wonder there are so few of them. The Guardian. 2015 Feb 13 [cited 2022 Mar 05]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2015/feb/13/female-academics-huge-sexist-bias-students

[2] Perez CC. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. London: Penguin Random House; 2019.

Title Image: Perimeter Institute

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Pepe Guzmán
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Pepe Guzmán
6 months ago

Thought provoking article!! Keep’em coming