Women in physics still going backwards

Australia’s physicists will hear today that they’re still losing the fight for gender equity in the physical sciences.

International and national speakers at the national physics congress in Canberra today will reveal:

  • Australian schoolgirls still prefer life sciences to physical sciences (chemistry, physics etc) – with a 2:1 ratio

  • At university that worsens to 4:1 locking out women from many career options

  • The proportion of women in senior science positions is improving at just 1 per cent per annum, and going backwards in lower levels.

  • UK physicists are fixing the problem with Project Juno. Could Australia follow them?

There are also some remarkable role models of women in physics speaking at the conference including: string theory guru Lisa Randall, SKA astronomer Lisa Harvey-Smith, Bronwyn Dolman studying weather and footballers’ hamstrings; Elisabetta Barberio looking for dark energy in a gold mine; quantum computing guru Michelle Simmons and many others.

There’s more information on these below and much more at www.scienceinpublic.com.au/category/conferences/physicscongress

Losing confidence in science—the women’s tale

Young women enter science degrees feeling more confident in their abilities than do young men, but after completing a PhD they are less successful at establishing a science research career. These findings come out of a recent survey of 1200 scientists (both men and women) by University of Melbourne researchers Sharon Bell and Lyn Yates.

The skew towards men in senior positions and women in junior positions in science research has changed very little over the past 20 years, with the proportion of women at the top increasing by only around one per cent each year. This extremely slow progress suggests we can’t simply wait for time to rectify the imbalance. “There’s no evidence of a pipeline,” says Sharon Bell, “and this slow progress is also very fragile”. In fact, where women used to outnumber men at the lower levels of academia (Level A, or tutor, positions) now men dominate these positions too.

Job security is the issue of greatest concern for most women in the science research workforce (less so for men) and career breaks took a greater toll on women’s careers. There is some indication, however, that gender-sensitive practices by the Australian Research Council in awarding grants are having a positive impact on women’s research participation.

Schoolgirl physics doesn’t translate into career choices

Girls who study science at university take up life sciences at almost four times the rate they study physical sciences. In Year 12, it’s closer to a 2:1 ratio, which means there’s a dramatic drop-off in interest in physical sciences in the transition from school to university, as Joanna Sikora from ANU will outline in her talk on Monday 8 December. In contrast, boys are twice as likely to follow a physical science career as life science (and slightly more likely to do science at all).

The data come from the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth, and were collected from students who were 15 years of age in 2009, are consistent with international patterns and reflect a persistent and pervasive cultural association between particular fields of science and femininity and masculinity.

Girls in physics—what’s keeping the door closed?

Girls make up only about 20 per cent of the UK students studying physics in senior years of high school (A levels), even though they are as successful academically in GSCE physics (the year below) as boys. This low number has been constant over the past few decades, and contributes to greatly limiting possible careers in the sciences for women.

The Institute of Physics in the UK is investigating why girls don’t continue with physics—is it lack of confidence in their abilities, bad experiences in the physics classroom or the influence of broader school culture? Frances Saunders, IOP President, will discuss the IOP’s programs underway in schools in the light of their Project Juno, which has successfully broken down barriers for women in physics at UK universities.

More diverse scientists to produce better Australian science

Also speaking at the session, Rob Robinson, President of the Australian Institute of Physics, argues that failing to make changes that support more women in physics would represent a failure for Australian science, limiting our potential for future developments. “Australia loses talent and important discoveries when we fail to mentor and support smart young women into sustainable careers in the physical sciences and engineering,” he says.

Role models

Despite these challenges there are plenty of women doing amazing work in many fields of physics. Just a few of them, presenting at the Congress, are:

  • University of Melbourne particle physicist Elisabetta Barberio, who is assisting the search for dark matter at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva
  • South Australia’s Bronwyn Dolman, who uses radar to study meteorological events, and has modelled the physics of the footy player’s dreaded hamstring injury
  • Harvard theoretical physicist and author Lisa Randall, a pioneer of multi-dimensional, warped-spacetime modelling
  • Astronomer Lisa Harvey-Smith, who investigates the birth and death of stars in our galaxy using CSIRO’s $188m radio telescope in remote WA
  • Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, who as CEO and Scientific Director of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin research centre, is responsible for 1100 reactor and synchrotron scientists
  • ANU researcher Merinda Nash who is studying the effects of higher dissolved CO2 levels on coral structures
  • UNSW’s Michelle Simmons, a world leader in the field of quantum computing, and director of Australia’s Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology.

Conference website: http://www.aip2014.org.au/

Conference media contacts

Niall Byrne 0417 131 977

Errol Hunt 0423 139 210

Margie Beilharz 0415 448 065


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