The numbers game: where are the women?

John Pendry

This year’s Institute of Physics (IOP) awards  were announced a couple of days ago, a list of impressive individuals who have shown mastery of their subject. Heading the list was the Isaac Newton Medal awarded to John Pendry for his work on metamaterials, among other things, work loosely described as leading to an ‘invisibility cloak’ by virtue of the way such materials deflect light around them.

Who else should we be celebrating? I suggest you cast your eye over the full list, but locally in Cambridge we are pleased to see colleague Jeremy Baumberg receive the Young Medal and Prize for his work on nanophotonics.

What is noticeable is that there is a distinct dearth of women. In fact there is precisely one: Joanna Dunkley from Oxford, who receives the Maxwell Medal and Prize for her work on the structure and history of the Universe. This is one of the early career awards awarded by IOP. (There were also two out of the four Honorary Fellowships announced this year awarded to women: myself and Michèle Leduc, who did so much for physics in France during her presidency of their equivalent of IOP. However, pleased though I may be by the honour, fellowships have less visibility.)

Only one prize for a woman? Should we, IOP members, be kicking and screaming about this gender disparity? Well no, I don’t think so. Let me explain why. These are similar arguments to those previously explored by the Royal Society.  Last year they elected only two female fellows and there was an outcry (you can see my immediate response to this miserable number here); this year there was the much more encouraging number of ten.

When the pool of female talent is small, as it is in both the cases of the Royal Society and IOP, fluctuations of this order are to be expected. Physicist Ed Hinds (chair of the Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity Committee) discussed this point carefully over on the Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity pages a while back. I followed up at the Guardian when the 2013 elections were announced.

In physics there are only a relatively small number of girls taking Physics A-level and the numbers simply drop off further at each successive stage. We start with a substantial number’s disadvantage when it comes to the pool from which the IOP could even potentially draw when selecting prize winners. Never mind any leakages that occur at later stages, we probably could not expect more than an average figure of around 1 in 4 or 5 of women amongst the prize winners (at an absolute top estimate), since that is the proportion in our undergraduate classes. Dismal, but we can’t blame the IOP for not trying as hard as it can to increase these numbers by interventions at schools.

Is the IOP trying as hard as it can to find women prize-winners? And does it matter that it should? Indeed, why am I bothering to write this post at all? I do think it matters because this is just one way of creating positive role models for those girls pondering their A-level and degree choices at school and, probably more importantly, for those women who have already committed to a physics degree but look around the lecture theatres and wonder why they are so outnumbered and, worse, what that means for their futures.  With so few women ahead of them to demonstrate the possibility and indeed the pleasure of staying in physics, it is hard for these women to see a plausible future for themselves in the field. There is increasing evidence showing how such visible absences further along a career trajectory can act as a subtle deterrent to progression. Let me cite as a specific example of such evidence, a recent paperrelating to the very different but similarly male-dominated field of surgery, which demonstrates – albeit on a small sample – how women can pick up discouraging messages because of the lack of successful women ahead of them.

I cannot comment directly on whether the IOP is trying as hard as it can, as I’ve never been involved with the awards process.  But, in line with all their other actions around gender, I would certainly expect that to be the case. Furthermore, at the risk of sounding immodest, it should be noted that I have received over my career the Boys Prize, the Mott Medal and the Faraday Medal. I can’t help suspecting that personally I have benefitted from the ‘all other things being equal’ formula. In other words, if you have a tie between a male and a female, and the female is the minority, give it to her. I don’t like affirmative action where all other things aren’t equal, but there are times when it makes sense to use this as a tie-breaker. Not that I’m complaining, I am merely producing anecdote to suggest the IOP is really trying pretty hard to redress the imbalance in the few ways it can.

So, what more can be done to improve the situation in the years to come? I would suggest the following actions: some are for you, the reader, and some for the IOP itself.


  • Make sure you stimulate nominations for prizes as widely as possible; actively encourage nominations from as diverse a range of the population as possible. I suspect that much is done along these lines already, but it never hurts to remind people.
  • Monitor nominations and check that the prizes awarded are appropriately representative of the nominations in terms of gender, ethnicity etc. Maybe publish some aggregated statistics and/or indicate which prizes have an unrepresentative or small pool of talent nominated.
  • Check if the prizes are fit for purpose, representing the totality of the modern discipline (although I suspect this was done quite recently), including the not-so-academic aspects including outreach andpublic engagement.


  • Nominate people for prizes. Do this in general, but with particular regard to minorities — not just women. Where are the ethnic minorities, for instance?  Anyone can do this! You will note that there are four prizes (and an honorary fellowship) for physicists at Imperial College this year. Imperial may be good, but are they so much better at physics than other institutions, or merely better organised at nominating people? There is a simple remedy and it lies in your hands.
  • Make sure your local schools aren’t themselves deterring girls from sticking with physics. Read the IOP report from last autumn if you want to learn more about the issues apparent in state co-educational schools across the country. Challenge teachers and parents about assumptions they may be making, which may serve to discourage girls from pursuing physics further in school or university. Don’t be fobbed off by the argument that ‘maybe girls don’t like physics’. Some do, some don’t, but if single sex schools can be so demonstrably more effective at getting girls to do A-level physics than co-ed ones (by a factor of 2.5 according to the report), there is a problem in the co-ed schools that needs to be addressed.


  • Get into schools to encourage girls to pursue physics to A-level and beyond. We need to share our love of the subject.
  • Similarly, talk at science festivals or anywhere else where you can show that women and physics mix happily and encourage the aspirations of girls.

The observant reader will note that these last two points require the women in physics to work rather harder at these outreach activities, thereby diluting their efforts on the day job and liable to render them less plausible as candidates for prizes. It’s catch-22 and it definitely catches some women.

What else can be done? That’s for you to decide, but complaining to the IOP is probably not the right place to put your efforts. When I won the Boys Prize in 1988 I was one of the first women to win an IOP award. Let us hope in another 25 years this topic finally has ceased to be worth writing about.

Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.

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