What does swimming the channel have to do with physics? Read on…

As the IOP’s own research has shown only too clearly, girls in schools are not progressing to A level physics in large numbers. How many do take the subject varies by school in quite significant ways and it looks as if the school ethos must be playing a substantial part. But for some girls, physics and the teaching of physics is something dear to their heart. I recently had the pleasure of attending the opening of a newly-refurbished physics lab where much of the funding had been raised by six intrepid girls. Swimming the Channel would seem a daunting prospect to, I would hazard, most of us. But these girls, aged 13–14 at the time, took this challenge on, raising around £25,000 in the process to put towards this refurbishment. Something over a year later, I had the privilege of opening the newly done-up physics lab along with these six girls.

This all took place at Camden School for Girls in London, my alma mater, so it was particularly pleasing to go back and find that a strong science culture is thriving there. (It was also interesting to see how much looked very much the same, and how much disconcertingly the-same-only-different.) Still a girls-only school for Years 7–11, it now has a mixed sixth form. This doesn’t seem to deter it from having a very healthy number of girls taking physics A level; I was told about 40%, which beats the national average by some considerable margin. It is tempting to think that some of this is that during the early, formative years when children start deciding what subjects (and, possibly, careers) appeal to them, the girls in this school are neither put off by peer pressure nor are they surrounded by a tranche of teachers who are prone to stereotype children by subject and gender.

At a time when the science Nobel Prizes are still overwhelmingly awarded to males – a topic much in the news at the moment – it is encouraging to see some highly committed girls who are undoubtedly demonstrating, at an early age, many of the key skills needed to get on in science: determination, perseverance, vision and resilience. Without those skills they could not have motivated themselves to undergo the heavy training schedules needed to make them able to take to the water in the first place, nor stick it out when faced with cold, waves and jelly fish when they got into it, let alone have the imagination to see how they could translate all of this into a new laboratory. These are all skills that our schools don’t necessarily teach in any formal sense, but which are vital to success in life.

If our schools managed to teach these skills would we suddenly see an upturn in the number of women gaining science Nobel Prizes? Unfortunately that seems unlikely, although it couldn’t hurt. The more I sit on committees – be they about promotions or grants or whatever – the more I worry about the unintended consequences of letters of reference which are liable to be a contributory factor in holding women back. If you sit through a grant panel, as I have just done, and there is a reference that says ‘this person is trying to do something too ambitious/risky/beyond their previous experience’ or something along those lines it is difficult not to think that that grant should be rightly thrown out. But if you notice that the PI is a woman and another grant application (from a male) has a comment to the effect of ‘this is an adventurous grant from someone trying to branch out into a new area’ in a tone of approval, then maybe one should stop to think. The comments may be extremely accurate descriptions of the two PI’s, but how can one be sure that they aren’t coloured by gender? It is impossible to know and hence impossible to use the references at face value.

In any walk of life I believe this unconscious distinction between the ways in which men and women who are tackling new challenges are described is liable to be prevalent. Take this quote from a senior Unilever manager, Tracey Rogers, highlighting a similar aspect in career progression that she had seen:

“…a male manager looking to promote a man may say, ‘Chuck him in at the deep end and let’s see if he sinks or swims’. The same manager may say of a female candidate, ‘Is she ready yet, we don’t want to set her up to fai’. Words said with the best of intentions without any malevolence – and, arguably, stated by a very well-mannered man – but the impact on the progression of the two careers is clear.”

Until people realise that they internalise different responses to men and women who are attempting to step outside their comfort zone, women will be disadvantaged. However tough girls are at school, however stellar their exam grades, however much they tick all the right boxes as they progress, they are in danger of coming up against an unconscious hurdle in letters of reference. We won’t see a sudden increase in women winning the major prizes, or indeed of women at an earlier stage getting prestigious fellowships such as the Royal Society’s University Research Fellowships (see my earlier post on this) to enable them to get in line to compete for major prizes, until we all recognize our own internal assumptions and general cultural baggage. We need to work on how we support women; progress is (slowly) being made on this front. But we also need to think much more carefully about how we describe women both internally and on paper or through the spoken word. Only then will committees really have confidence that what is said in a letter of reference genuinely reflects reality and not some outdated conception of what is ‘proper’ for a woman to do. Only then will it be possible to recognize true excellence with confidence, in whatever guise – and gender – it appears.

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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