Women in Physics

Last weekend was overwhelmingly inspirational. I attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) which was held in my hometown, Oxford. Not only was I dealing with how surreal it was being back in the city I was born and raised, a long 8 years since I departed, but little did I remember how utterly beautiful it is there. It was the perfect setting for such a conference, the first of its kind in the UK, and possibly even Europe.

Before arriving I was in fact a little skeptical – a women only conference – will it be filled with self-righteous, narrow-minded, claw-grabbing individuals who are condescending, only hoping to network and get ahead in their careers? I could not have been more wrong. Actually, how could I ever have even thought these thoughts in the first place? Instead I met women from all over the world, studying at institutions from all across the UK (myself being the exception). Women who were shy, women who were mature students with children, women who had no idea what to do with their lives… One woman is a science fiction writer, she enrolled with the Open University immediately after a male writer had told her that women can’t write scifi because they’re not interested in science. All in all we all had one resounding thing in common: every woman wanted to help each other, bonding over breakfast, humbly sharing experiences of our lives, and becoming fully saturated in enthusiasm; and it was terribly infectious.

Just shy of 100 students attending, we all participated in panels, workshops, and lectures together. The opening lecture enlightened us with the knowledge that both men and women are biased against women. The majority of students had never heard of this study before, where two identical C.V.s were sent to employers; one C.V. had the name John, the other Jennifer. John was considered to be more competent and hireable, and was offered a higher salary, despite being exactly the same as Jennifer. Everyone was both shocked and appalled, and led to reflect on whether or not we also suffer from the same bias, why it exists in the first place, and what we can do to change it. We were also given the information that only 20% of pupils taking Physics at A-Level are girls, less than the U.S. equivalent! Inevitably these figures get worse the further you progress through academia. It was even more astounding to meet students who are one of only two or three females in a lecture of one hundred or so males. I had never considered how fortunate I was to attend a university where the ratio is almost even.

After this striking introduction, we meandered outside to observe the solar eclipse. It was already fully underway, a good sized chunk of the Sun obscured by the Moon, and unfortunately somewhat by the clouds as well. Luckily the clouds weren’t too thick, and we were able to see enough, basking in this glorious and rare moment. We were quickly whisked away in coaches to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), practically a town in itself, comprised of particle accelerators, extremely high-class lasers, and thousands of people excited about science. Before getting to the knitty-gritty details of what goes on at RAL, we were presented with a careers panel, and a fascinating collection of women from all walks of life. The resounding message from them all was to not give into pressure, if you want to do something that is different and unusual, then do it. It doesn’t matter if women aren’t supposed to go into this or that field, or if you are supposed to study and excel from the youngest age possible. Following quirky and unexpected paths that interest you and spark your imagination can only add to your wholeness!

One of the woman on the panel had gotten a 2:2 from Oxford, and had felt impending doom as her life was seemingly collapsing around her, but work experience and hard work landed her a job at RAL and later the opportunity to do a PhD. This led to a student summoning the courage to ask about imposter syndrome and what can be done to alleviate it. The panel were resoundingly supportive, jumping in to tell us that they had all at some point suffered in its symptoms. For example, one can feel like an imposter, incapable, that there must have been a mistake, that they’re never good enough and are undeserving of all achievements, despite a huge amount of evidence which says otherwise. By the end of the morning we were so moved and touched by everyone’s positivity and willingness to share, one student felt it necessary to tell us just how inspired she felt; thanks had to be made known. My eyes welled up and I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one.

As the weekend progressed we inevitably strengthened our bonds, a deep-rooted connection instilled from the onset. Imposter syndrome repeatedly came up throughout the conference, every lecturer told us about their failures, and how they overcame the endless challenges they had faced within science, from wanting to study something unconventional, within a male dominated field, or wanting to work/research and have a family simultaneously (heaven forfend!). Dame Jocelyn Bell failed the 11+ exam and struggled for decades as a result. She was the only female student in her Undergraduate Physics degree at Glasgow, and every single day the boys would thunder down upon the desks and goad her. In her words, she become an expert in not blushing. She had no friends to study with and whenever she came top of the class her peers only became more scornful and aggressive. We listened in complete admiration, to the woman who had discovered pulsars but whose supervisor was given the Noble Prize for a woman couldn’t have possibly received such an honour. It’s funny how hearing about the failures of other prolific scientists can really inspire you… Thankfully, things are somewhat better today, and we were comforted with the knowledge that we can actually do this, one just needs to not be afraid to ask for help when they require it. There are many people out there eager to support in whatever way they can.

On the Physics side of things, I had never actually been all that interested in lasers, medical physics, or particle physics before, but exploring RAL and listening to an endless array of fascinating talks ensured that I could never see those topics as boring again. In particular, I couldn’t get over one particular discovery, that there is a field called Laboratory Astrophysics which involves simulating supernova with the use of lasers! I am still in awe just thinking about it.

I have been humbled by everyone I have met, constantly increasing in admiration and awe of those around me, and I cannot wait for the positive changes that are to come. I loved seeing everyone’s self-doubts shatter around me, replaced by this glowing, contagious excitement and thirst for knowledge. A passion for science was reignited where it had been lost, with many students now determined in doing a PhD where imposter syndrome had been holding them back. If before we had ever felt intimidated by PhD students, postdocs, professors etc. all traces of inadequacies were extinguished. If anyone had thought that a 3 day conference couldn’t achieve anything or change anyone’s lives, they were proved wrong. Instead, many new doors have been opened, women have grown and flourished, friendships were fostered, and I have no doubts that we will all go on to accomplish something incredible. Eternal thanks to all of the organisers and volunteers who made this happen.

In the words of Dame Jocelyn Bell, “Just go for it! Don’t think!”

3 thoughts on “Women in Physics

  1. Shif

    You have expressed perfectly what we all feel Thanks for this well written summery..
    And I join the eternal gratitude to all the organisers and helpers who gave us this amazing life-changing opportunity!

  2. Really inspiring post, thank you! Especially for your honesty about having been initially skeptical. I think it’s so true about how both men and women discriminate against women in science! We all need to mind our subconscious prejudices. And articles like this really help with that! 🙂

  3. breyonne

    Thanks so much for this. I am a mature student and just starting my journey down the road to a physics degree. I have high hopes for myself. There is no ‘women in science’ group here at my university, as there are at a growing number of universities now (though there is a group called Women in Engineering and Computer Science). I’m thinking of maybe starting a Women in Science group once I get a little further into my degree because it would be great to have the support.

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