The Institute of Physics recently held an event on ‘Taking control of your career as a female physicist’. Naturejobs sent Jack Leeming to find out more.
Late, I sneak into the back of a room on the 4th floor of a conference centre in central London, where 70 young female physicists are listening to Professor Dame Athene Donald speak. I try not to break their concentration as I find a chair. Professor Donald is relaxed and passionate, and manages to condense her advice – put into context through deeply personal, humorous anecdotes – into ten simple points to live by. Donald has had a hugely successful career (though, she admits, she is still embarrassed when people say it), making her way through the physics of metals and polymers, then the physics of food, then colloids, then starch, then proteins and
cellular biophysics, and finally ending up in her current area of the physics of biological and soft systems. She’s now the Master of Churchill College at Cambridge. It’s a quite the CV, and made all the more impressive by her achievements outside the world of academia.
Donald casually weaves her personal life into her career as she speaks. She has to leave early – her husband has been to the hospital recently for a bad leg, and still needs looking after. Her daughter did a placement when she was 17 and learnt a lot about office politics; apparently it was useful. Her message is one of pro-activity, self-confidence and overcoming failure. She’s been the gender equality champion for Cambridge University, has written for The Guardian, The Observer and The Conversation, and her blog – started in 2010 – has become enormously popular online. Somebody asks her what’s next. She says retirement. I don’t think anyone quite believes her.
Her advice – seize any opportunity you have; don’t assume you’re bad because something is hard; decide for yourself what advice to take – is good and solid for all scientists and perhaps everyone looking to move forward in their career, but the personal stories accompanying it, about adversity, getting ‘cross’ and taking action, is what the room enjoys most. It sets the stage for the rest of the day.
I sit in on the morning session, listening to Dr Jenny Wooldridge and Dr Valarie Berryman-Bousquet speak about their careers. They’re both experienced industrial scientists, and are candid with their advice. Wooldridge went down the traditional academic path, but decided against a postdoc. She looked for a job in research but had to take her time, working as a business analyst for a year before joining the National Physical Laboratory. It’s taken six years there to get her salary back up to where it was, but she doesn’t regret her time in research.
Dr Berryman-Bousquet is the research manager of one of the four SHARP research and development labs. Her job, she explains, is to bring her research to life in the form of actual products that somebody could pick up and use. It’s the perfect fit for her – since she visited CERN after her BSc, she was enthralled by physics, but wasn’t interested in research for research’s sake. She wanted to see her work move on into something, and then do the same herself. And since she joined SHARP in 2000, that’s more-or-less been her job description.
After lunch (networking’s important, all of the speakers remind us), we pack into a conference room for the third time to hear from Professor Donald’s college at Cambridge’s physics department, Professor Valarie Gibson. Gibson is the head of high-energy physics in Cambridge, but perhaps her most memorable achievement is at the Large Hadron Collider, where she leads the LHCb (the ‘b’ stands for ‘beauty’, after the eponymous quark) experiments, searching for clues on the relationship between matter and antimatter. After talking through her career history, Gibson shows us her proudest achievement – a photograph of her two daughters. She goes on to talk about her challenges as a woman in physics. Things have improved: when she started 10% of people in the field were women, now there are 20%. There’s still room for improvement. Maternity leave was a big struggle for her; she was the first lecturer at Cambridge to take it – they were more or less making it up as they went along. When she came back she had to immediately jump into a lecture course. It was too much too fast – she had to leave again.
Professor Gibson answers questions and makes way to the back of the room, leaving the stage free for Dr Emma Chapman, a postdoc in astrophysics at Imperial College London. She speaks through her experiences as a physics undergraduate, and then committing to her postdoc and her children at the same time. She leaves her research in the lab at 5pm, and says it works well for her. She gets angry when she sees the gender imbalance data on physicists in academia. She shows us data from 2011 to illustrate but when we speak after her talk she mentions a report in her field from this year. The numbers don’t look good. Women are less keen, and less confident, looking for a career in academia then men from the beginning of their degrees. They’re right to be less keen – the numbers show career progression for women is much worse than it is for men in astrophysics.
At the end of the day, we attendees all spend some time chatting with each other (networking again) over drinks. We speak about women in physics and I’m politely asked what I’m doing here. Someone asks what it’s like being the only man in a room at a scientific conference. I admit it’s fairly intimidating. “That’s what it feels like”, I’m told. And now I know.