Summaries of plenaries at the 7th IUPAP Conference on Women in Physics

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Plenary 1: Gender Gap in the Global Survey: Igle Gledhill, Rachel Ivie and Susan White

Plenary 1: Gender in publication practices in maths and physics, Helena Mihaljević

Plenary 1: Australia inequity, Lisa Harvey-Smith

Plenary 2: Women in physics in Sudan, challenges and opportunities, Nashwa Eassa

Plenary 2: Molecular motors and switches at surfaces, Petra Rudolf

Plenary 3: Men as allies

Plenary 1: Gender Gap in the Global Survey: Igle Gledhill, Rachel Ivie and Susan White

To understand and reduce the gender gap in science, we must identify the various factors that deter women from pursuing scientific careers.

Several international surveys have explored these issues in the past. The 2018 Global Survey from Global Approach to the Gender Gap in Mathematics, Computing and Natural Sciences: How to measure it, how to reduce it? addresses inequality in education and career experiences along with work-life balance.

Dr Igle Gledhill (Witwatersrand University, South Africa) and Dr Rachel Ivie (American Institute of Physics) outline the background to this survey and some of the results for physics.

To ensure as broad representation as possible, the questionnaire was available in seven languages and distributed across 159 countries. It was completed by more than 30,000 scientists, 7500 of whom were physicists. Thirty-seven per cent of the physicists were women.

All results controlled for confounding variables (gender, age employment sector, geographical location, and UN level of human development). Key findings include:

  • There are no significant gender differences in career opportunities such as talking at a conference as an invited speaker, serving as editor of a journal or supervising students.
  • Women are less likely to have access to a range of career resources, such as sufficient funding, clerical and tech support, employees or students and support as a working parent. The differences appear small, but they compound over a career.
  • Family obligations affect women significantly more than men. Women were more likely to report choosing a less demanding work schedule, becoming more efficient, and slowed career progression after becoming a parent.
  • Women are much more likely to have a partner who is also a physicist.
  • Women physicists report doing more housework than men. Male physicists report earning more than their partners, many of whom are not physicists.
  • More women than men report that their workplace can be unpleasant, and sometimes hostile.
  • Many more women than men have experienced, or are aware of, sexual harassment at work.

While these results are discouraging, this data is important to document what needs to be corrected. Recommendations to government, universities and laboratory administrators must be based on evidence to effect change.

Plenary 1: Gender in publication practices in maths and physics, Helena Mihaljević

A scientist’s publication record is often taken as proxy for their reputation,  and plays a key role in achieving and maintaining a successful academic career. An understanding of the effect of gender on publication practices is relevant to academic institutions, science policymakers and researchers alike.

Helena Mihaljević and her team at HTW University of Applied Science Germany accessed non-commercial, open-access databases and studied the distribution of authors across subfields, proportions of women authors across countries, representation of women authors in prestigious journals and research activity over time.

There are more women authors in astrophysics than other physics disciplines (around 16 per cent), and their numbers are increasing.

There is a trend of converging career length (as determined by published works), which indicates that securing an academic position is getting harder for both women and men.

The so-called productivity gap as a ratio of women’s over men’s productivity is closing in astronomy and astrophysics for recent cohorts, but not in mathematics. This could be related to the more collaborative nature of these disciplines, as compared to mathematics.

Women are still under-represented in renowned journals, especially in physics and theoretical and pure mathematics. For maths, female authorship is extremely low and showing no signs of improving in renowned theoretical or pure maths journals, while applied maths is showing a positive trend in female authorship (around 15 per cent). In physics, female authorship remains at or below 10 per cent, with few positive trends. However, the bright spots are astronomy and astrophysics, which shows an overall positive trend.

Plenary 1: Australia inequity, Lisa Harvey-Smith

Around the world, women are under-represented in STEM studies and careers. The statistics are stark:

  • 28 per cent of people employed in Australian STEM industries are women.
  • Only 18 per cent of professors are women.
  • In Year 12, girls are particularly under-represented in engineering, computing, physics and higher maths.
  • Of the women who graduated with a STEM degree in 2011, one in ten were working in STEM five years later, compared with one in five men.
  • Women earned less annual median income than men as VET STEM graduates and STEM postgraduates.
  • Women working full-time in STEM who took a career break for the arrival of a child were likely to earn less than those who didn’t. Men who took career breaks for this reason earned significantly more.

There is a range of reasons why women are under-represented and there are ‘pinch points’ at every stage of education and employment that limit women’s studies and careers. These range from lack of role models and gender bias for younger women, to discrimination and more caring responsibilities for STEM professionals.

These issues are systemic and complex and require large-scale, long-term cultural and systemic change.

The Australian government is tackling this problem with a suite of programs, guided by a national strategy. Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith is the Women in STEM Ambassador and leads a team that seeks to increase the participation of women and girls in STEM education and careers across Australia. Her office is achieving this through education, research, advocacy and policy advice.

The Women in STEM Ambassador is spearheading a national awareness-raising initiative funded by a $1M investment from the Federal Government. The Future You campaign is all about exciting and informing young people about the vast array of career options that use STEM skills. 

Their education-focussed programs and activities seek to increase girls’ interest in STEM jobs, raise parents’ opinions of the importance of STEM as a future career for their children and help teachers develop more inclusive STEM learning environments.

Initiatives for professional women in STEM seek to help the media and others discover the diversity of Australian women with STEM skills, connect women with career-advancing opportunities, improve workplace culture in STEM research organisations and remove bias in awarding grant funding.

Evaluation is the only way to understand if programs are working to affect change. The National Evaluation Guide is a simple online evaluation tool that offers practical advice and breaks down program evaluation into five easy steps.

Plenary 2: Women in physics in Sudan, challenges and opportunities, Nashwa Eassa

Being a woman in science, and physics in particular, is a challenge. The barriers and restrictions are well-documented but in Sudan, the challenges are even greater.

Infrastructure is limited and there are few experts in the country, so starting anything technology-related is difficult. Sudanese researchers must also overcome conflict and economic constraints: physics research doesn’t seem important when there’s no money for food and your safety is constantly at risk.

Like women all over the world, family commitments fall onto predominantly onto women’s shoulders.

The numbers of women who study physics at the undergraduate level in Sudan is double that of men, but they leave the discipline before reaching more senior positions. Women generally occupy only lecturer positions after graduation.

Nashwa Eassa is the first female Associate Professor in Physics at Al Neelain University, Sudan. Her research interests include photonics materials, band gap engineering of oxide semiconductors, nanostructures, and computational physics.

She began her research career in Sudan then moved overseas for further studies. Her PhD in South Africa provided lab space but not funding for accommodation, medical insurance or living expenses.

The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) offers Fellowships to assist women like Nashwa, and she won such a Fellowship. It made her research career possible, and led to further grants, such as one from the Ministry and Higher Education and Scientific Research in Sudan. Nashwa now leads a lab with four PhD and 12 Masters students.

OWSD is program unit of UNESCO and provides research training, career development and networking opportunities for women scientists throughout the developing world at different stages in their careers. It supports women through education, scientific research, job opportunities and leadership. They offer skills development workshops in scientific writing, application writing and communication skills as well as scientific English language training.

Plenary 2: Molecular motors and switches at surfaces, Petra Rudolf

Nature uses many molecular motors and switches. Our hearts have nanoscale molecular motors which move the heart muscle fibres. The coordinated action of these molecular motors generates the work that makes our hearts beat.

However, molecules operate very differently from the microscopic machines that humans build. We rely on the static properties of materials and select for particular qualities such as transparency or electricity conductivity. Biological machines, on the other hand, are soft (not rigid), work at ambient temperatures, self-assemble and work in solution and at surfaces.

Dr Petra Rudolf and her team (University of Groningen, The Netherlands) are studying the physical properties of molecules or 2D solids at surfaces. Since one layer of molecules is enough to completely alter the properties of a surface in nature, they are using similar ideas and building surfaces that can change properties.

Rotaxanes can be used as a molecular motor. They are comprised of a ‘staff’ with a ring around it; the ring is fixed to the staff through hydrogen bonds, and the ring can sit in different positions. Changing the position of the ring influences the mechanical properties of the molecule.

Using a surface that can change from hydrophobic to hydrophilic upon exposure to light and by attaching fluorene to the staff, Petra’s group has moved a droplet of water up a 12 degree incline. The process is believed to be as efficient as those found in our bodies.

This is the first demonstration of being able to do work with an artificial molecular motor, similar to our heart. Using this technology, they envisage that water-based printing could replace laser printers.

By attaching specific molecules to a surface and changing their position using an electrochemical charge, Petra’s team has also created a range of molecular switches.

They are also investigating how the conductivity of a single molecular layer changes when it is switched. Using gold as a conducting surface and adding a layer of liquid metal on top as an electrode, they have shown that that the value of conductivity changes between switched configurations. 

This system is switched using combinations of different chemicals and frequencies of light and has created a read-write system: a punchcard. It can write bits with light, erase, re-write and read again with no errors.

Plenary 3: Men as allies

It is well-known that there are many fewer women in physics at all levels than men. But how can men be allies to women in physics?

Sven Rogge (Pro Vice-Chancellor – Research, University of New South Wales, Sydney and President of the Australian Institute of Physics) chaired a session discussing what is possible, what is already happening and what remains.

The panel included:

  • Professor Hume Feldman (Chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, USA)
  • Professor Brian Fulton (Dean of Faculty of Science, University of York, UK)
  • Professor Brian Schmidt (Vice-Chancellor and President, The Australian National University and 2011 Nobel Laureate for Physics)
  • Professor Roxanne Springer (Duke University, USA and Chair American Physical Society Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) ad hoc committee to create harassment prevention program)
  • Professor Xing Zhu (Peking University, China and Working group for women in physics in developing countries).

Research has shown that most men support equality in principle, but all panellists agreed that physics still has deep-seated problems. While things are changing, women should not be expected to do the heavy lifting to fix these problems.

For men, it is hard to be aware of what doesn’t happen to you. They need to be proactive rather than sympathetic. They must listen, take concerns seriously and call out bad practice when they see it. Men are likely to hear and understand another man, rather than assuming a woman is ‘upset’.

Several accreditation programs exist worldwide to help universities, departments and institutions recognise and address the issues faced by women in physics. These include Project Juno and Athena Swan. They involve both men and women and rely on collecting data to effect change.

Data is the only way to know whether programs work. For scientists, facts and statistics mean something, and it can help convince reluctant men.

Other approaches include training men to act as chaperones for women at events such as conferences. The DNP Allies program operates at the DNP fall meetings. The program draws together a vetted group of DNP members to help those who feel harassed.

The only way to increase women’s numbers in physics is to hire them, and this can be accelerated if an institution is prepared to take action within culturally acceptable limits.

Recruitment strategies such as women-only positions, dual hires and talent programs can help increase their numbers, especially at senior levels. Specific strategies can address unbalanced committee and recruitment short lists.

While it is important to include more women on committees, due to their smaller numbers, women are frequently overburdened.

Being an ally is continuous and must involve everyone to see ‘hidden’ issues such as bias, language, and disadvantageous workplace practices such as meetings held late or early in the day.

Finally, men should take a step back, and follow women’s advice. (“It’s not about you”).

Increasing the number of women, and diversity more broadly, is good not just for physics, but for society in general.