female physics
lifestyle,  Uncategorized

Life as a Female Physicist

Happy International Women’s Day!

I wanted to do a special blog post which is close to my heart today, and a little bit different. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Rina and I work at a UK University as a Physics PhD student. I’m currently in my fourth year, and I’ve experienced a lot of highs and lows associated with being a girl in my field.

Women in Science - My background

I’m 25, from Japan, living and working in London. You could say that I’m quite a minority in my workplace, being both female and east asian!

My work is in antimatter Physics, working with anti-particle interactions with matter. The general topic of this work is Atomic Physics, which is quite a large field. I did my undergraduate degree here in the UK as well, and graduated just with a 1st in MSci Physics from the same institution.

I’ve always loved science and maths from my school days, and never really enjoyed English or other humanities subjects. It was easy for me to chose my A-levels, but so hard to pick between Medicine and Physics at University level! I ended up going for Physics (duh) and little did I know of what was going to happen…

Day-to-day

In my daily life, I don’t really notice the discrepancy between male and female coworkers. You could say that I’m used to not having other girls around me, seeing that from my undergraduate days, girls made up only 14% of my course cohort.

My boss is a female professor, at the absolute top of her field and a major source of inspiration to me. I wanted a strong female role model in my life, which played a part in choosing to work in her group. Maybe the combination of these two factors are why I don’t notice the discrepancy as much.

Another reason is that as I’m now writing up and analysing my work, my days are quite dull. I come into my office, which I share with none of my team, write my thesis and codes for analysis, and go home. I don’t come into contact with many people at all, male or female.

But...

However, speaking to my female friends who work in physics, we notice a lot of under the radar discrimination in daily life. Being talked over, having ideas ignored until repeated by a man, being explained your research back to you by a man, the list can be endless. 

Its worse when theres been a few drinks involved, and some off-hand comments made by (usually older) male colleagues can definitely make me eager to get home sooner, rather than try to explain or tell them off (too awkward!).

The bigger picture

Despite this, the fact that there are such few female peers in my field is a source of slight concern to me. And in my eight years of being in the same institution, I have seen very little (if any) improvement.

If you follow me on twitter, you might have seen the poll that I had going. I wanted to get a feeling of the proportion of women in the workplace in my following. And I wasn’t surprised to see that (very small!) majority voted less than 10% women in their workplace. It was kind of pleasantly surprising that the next closest was over 35%. But then, is it bad that my expectations were that low?!

 

Women in STEM twitter poll
Women in STEM twitter poll – results after 1 day!

 

This vote fits with the findings of UNESCO, although of course theirs is on a much larger scale! I would definitely recommend the UNESCO findings for a great read on the topic. The sources are listed below.

And the men..?

Even more worrying than the stats is that some of my male colleagues don’t seem to share this concern or can’t see an issue. Our university has a rule: if there is a panel interview of 3 or more academics, at least one must be female. A male co-worker said of this that this is taking roles away from men! I was amazed and astounded by this comment. Although it wasn’t the common opinion, its still a bit shocking to hear these things from the younger generation as well.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics
Female researchers in Europe. Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, June 2018. [1]

The BIG problems

One of the worst things I hate being told or hearing is when a man uses the fact that a lot of institutions now have a quota for women, and say that is the only reason a woman is there, or got the role. I HATE it. I find is incredibly disrespectful. This especially happens to bitter men, who lost out on a position or promotion against a female researcher. This can happen to something as small and petty as being invited to a talk for a conference. I have been told by some men that they didn’t get a talk because my talk was the last slot and I’m a girl. I knew in that instance, it wasn’t true as I’d been invited, and they had to apply and didn’t get it. But how are you supposed to respond to that?!

I respect and appreciate institutions trying to have better representation and equal opportunities, but I hate when men use it as an excuse as to why hardworking and successful women are doing better than them.

International

 

The issues surrounding this discrepancy becomes apparent at international conferences. Over my time as a researcher, I’ve been to over six conferences in four continents, and the results are always the same.

I tend to be one of a handful of women in the audience. Of the worse statistics that I’ve been a part of: last year in a conference of 160 attendees, there were 13 women (3 of whom were admin staff and not part of the scientific program). In another, of 130 attendees, there were only 6 women.

I’ve gotten so used to these statistics, but the worst part comes after the talks and panels. It comes at the socials and dinners. When the men have a little bit more to drink, the inappropriate behaviour and comments definitely increases. I’ve had a senior academic from my institution call me a “posh bitch” to a professor from a US university in front of my face.

 

The gender gap in science
Gender gap in science. Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, June 2018. [1]

This study, the same one from UNESCO, shows that it is indeed an international issue. I’m glad that days like today will bring more attention to this, and that there are programs in place to try and improve the situation. The fact that many ‘developed’ countries are further down the list surely means that there is a lot of room for improvement!

parents-in-STEM
Parents in STEM. Source: Nature [2]

I won’t even get into the maternity and paternity leave issue surrounding this, but for those who want to see the research behind the above figure, I’ve put a link in the sources section below.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to everyone who spread my message and hit RT on my polls. I’m so grateful to everyone who participated and helped get it seen!

I’d like to give a special shoutout to @womenintech and @STEMWomenUK for helping spread the word to their followers and pointing me to work which is being done by so many great institutions and individuals!

Please do check them out and give them a follow if this is something that interests you, and be sure to check in with us for an update!

So heres my question to you all...

Why do you think this discrepancy still exists?

Are you a women in a STEM field? What made you join and are you happy with your situation?

Do you work outside of STEM? What are your thoughts on trying to encourage more girls into science and technology?

Please let me know either down below in the comments, or on any of my social media platforms! I’d love to hear your opinions and experiences. This is a topic that really intrigues me, and I’d be really interested to gather some more knowledge!

Thank you so much for reading my International Women’s day special!

Help spread the word and lets keep the path going for gender equality for all!

See you in the next one,

Rina

Source:
[1] – UNESCO Institute for Statistics, June 2018. Access here.
[2] – H. Else; Nearly half os US female scientists leave full-time science after first child; 
Nature. Access here.

8 Comments

  • Yvonne @hudduma

    Wow this is such an interesting read. I’m not in the STEM field but I didn’t realise the disparities were that significant. Well I’ve learnt something new today. Great post, especially on international women’s day. 😍

  • Ruth

    I think that it is going to take at least one, if not two generations to truly change things as the ?tenured? professors of old need to retire/pass on so that the upstanding females in the field have a chance to move into their positions.

    I switched from sciences to humanities at A-Level, my dream at that point was to become a journalist and it was my GCSE English teacher who really encouraged me and told me how capable I was and that I could definitely pass an English A-Level (I was a school drop-out for mental health reasons and had been doing BTEC First Diploma in sciences with English and Math GCSE). I do wonder if my path may have been different if I had been encouraged and told I was capable within the sciences.

    • Rina Kay

      Thank you so much for your comment. I completely agreed, there are so many tenured positions at Universities (mostly white, old and male) which means that new positions for younger generations and women don’t become available. The attitude from a lot of academics needs to change as well.

      Humanities, especially english literature/language was one I always wished I was better at! I parted with all humanities after GCSEs, so the opposite of you. I wonder too if my route would be very different – my brother is currently studying English literature at University, and it seems worlds apart.

      Thank you so much for reading, and I love learning about people’s paths so thank you for sharing x

  • Cyn

    This was an interesting read! It can be frightening when you’re one of few women working in your field! This was an eye opener to me, as I work in a woman-dominated profession! Hopefully as time progresses there will be more equal representation!

    Cyn
    http://www.cynspo.com

    • Rina Kay

      I’m so glad – thank you! I would love to experience working in a woman dominated world, even just for a day! It must be so different. Thank you so much for reading and commenting X

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