Published On: Wed, Feb 20th, 2013

UoL Addresses the Physics Gender Gap

Women have always been the minority in physics, yet physicists from the University of Liverpool are doing something to try and change. On Friday 15th Feb, the University hosted one of its’  ‘Young Women in Physics’ days, to encourage and promote the study post-A-level to school girls.

Group photo of the girls who attended the day.

Group photo of the girls who attended the day.

These days are run by the University’s Physics Outreach programme, which organises a wealth of events both on and off campus to encourage a love of physics to school children.

The day was attended by G.C.S.E students of 2 schools, Holly Lodge Girls College from Liverpool, and Fallibroome Academy from Macclesfield. After a welcome talk and ice breaking activities, the day consisted of a variety of talks and practical activities for the girls, all given by female members of the department. There were lab sessions  using lasers and one studying gamma rays, which gave the girls an opportunity to see the type of work you can expect to do as a physics undergraduate,   a far cry from the usual school practicals.

The talks were varied, titled, ‘Surface Physics in the Real World’, ‘Exploring the Universe with Exploding Stars’, and ‘Medical Physics’, to give the girls a taste of the vast topics of study within the field.  ‘Science is Cool’ was the grand finale of the day, with lots of liquid nitrogen fun! Balloons magically blew up, rubber bike inner-tubes and flowers were smashed to pieces, and ice cream was made from scratch in less than 10 minutes-much to everyone’s delight!

The feedback from the students who attended was overwhelming, the girls from Holly Lodge spared a few moments to talk about their day and were suitably impressed. They particularly enjoyed the practical work, something which they are lucky to enjoy much of in school, and frequently ‘tweet’ about (@PhysicsGirlies for those of you who want to have a look).

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Morning lab session.

 

The reoccurring theme from the feedback was the revelation of just how much you can do with a Physics degree. For instance a range jobs the girls hadn’t even considered all become accessible through a Physics degree.

Statistics show that in terms of choices, physics is the 4th most popular A-level subject for boys, yet only the 19th for girls. The Institute of Physics decided to look into why this is, and found some answers to explain the gap. It seems, according to the IOP’s research, that young women don’t see a career in physics as one they can balance with family life, and many don’t see how you can still be a ‘girlie-girl’ within the professional physics environment. These of course, are false ideas. Agreed, physics doesn’t overtly go hand-in-hand with family life ideologies, typically a post-doc researcher will take the best available opportunity, which may not always be in their home town, to enhance their career. However, it includes no more travel, and is no more challenging than the world of fashion, or design is, to maintain a work-family harmony.

Home-made ice cream.

Home-made ice cream.

If fact to aid this, a charity was founded in 1992, the Daphne Jackson Trust.  2 year, part time fellowships are funded; which help scientists and engineers return to their careers after a break for family reasons. The trust was founded by Daphne Jackson, who was the first ever female professor of Physics in the UK. She is reputed to have said “Imagine a society that would allow Marie Curie to stack shelves in a supermarket simply because she took a career break for family reasons.” The fund is to this day, the only retraining initiative to help women return to research after a family career break.

Earlier last month, the University appointed its’ first ever female Professor of Physics, by awarding a Professorship to Dr Tara Shears. Speaking on her promotion, the head of Particle Physics said: “Tara’s achievements on the LHCb experiment have been truly outstanding. She pioneers and leads a whole area of physics on the experiment that no-else had thought was possible on LHCb when it was built. Her creativity and insight have helped Liverpool make important breakthroughs in physics.” Hopefully, seeing Professor Shears’ example will inspire and encourage many young girls with a flair for Physics to pursue it.

The University has another Young Women in Physics day in April and one for 6th form girls in July. In order to attend the 6th form day, the girls must justify why they would like to attend, and what they hope to achieve from the day, something which should get them thinking before they arrive.It certainly looks as though the tide is changing, with Tara’s example, and the work that the Outreach program here and that the Daphne Jackson trust (amongst others) does, in the not-so distant-future, a greater balance may be found between the genders within the world of physics.

About the Author

- Maths student, Evertonian, runner, tea drinker :)