Nabihah Rahman


Recently, I learned of an appalling statistic. It will take 258 years to close the gender gap in physics [1]. 258 years. We won’t even see this in our lifetimes (unless miraculously, we find a way to triple our life expectancy). In the Imperial physics department alone, it is easy to see the massive gender imbalance. But why should we care? The longer we take to rectify this imbalance, the longer it will be that we are losing out on imperative perspectives and talent [2]. Seeing a woman thrive in her career as a physicist is very empowering; it enables young women to see themselves in her and motivates an increased pursuit of physics. The benefits of making physics more diverse and inclusive are undeniable.  

In line with the 2021 International Women’s Day theme, “Choose to Challenge”, I have decided to highlight some key issues that prevent women from meeting their true potential in physics. Sadly, these issues are much more prevalent than we would like and are responsible for the talent we don’t get to meet in our discipline. If we recognise it, we can challenge it; and if we can challenge it, we can build a community that invites and holds on to its brilliant physicists. 

The Negative Climate of Academia  

For many women in academia, and especially in STEM subjects like physics, the workplace proves to be a massive challenge to the sense of self. It is best described as ‘walking a tightrope’; a woman cannot be ‘feminine’ to the extent that she seems incompetent, but she also cannot be ‘masculine’ to the extent that she’s not ‘amiable’ enough [3]. Just imagine what this work-place must be like for someone who simply wants to have a pleasant working environment. You have the nerve to dress in a conventionally feminine style? You don’t want to be taken seriously. Do you dare to continue speaking when a colleague persistently interrupts you? Far too assertive. It has been ingrained into women that perception means everything, in all aspects of life and not just in an academic career. It is a lingering thought when you choose what to wear in the morning, when you decide to let the person interrupting you speak, and when you avoid speaking up in discussions for fear of sounding stupid. It’s a wonder why women choose to leave physics if this is the life they’re pushed into leading.  

But are women being too sensitive? Perception of course impacts women working and studying at different institutions in different ways; but it has doubtlessly affected many of us, potentially without us even realising it. You should not have to be apologetic for feeling like you do not quite belong; your feelings are valid and should not have to be suppressed because people are uncomfortable hearing about them. Given that there are so many others that share these feelings, it is very evident that there must be something rooted in the academic climate which results in the deterioration of women’s identities. Gender gaps in any discipline enable this culture to thrive even further [4]. Women should not be forced to conform to some unrealistic ideal because ultimately, your academic career should not come at the expense of you.  

Stagnant Careers 

When there are so few women in academia as a whole, it is unsurprising that there are even fewer women in senior positions. Women who defy the statistics and pursue careers in physics beyond their doctorate, face an uphill battle when it comes to being recognised for their abilities and being promoted thereafter. In many cases, this comes down to one particular factor – motherhood [3]. You would think that by now we would not be reducing women to their reproductive organs, yet this plays a significant role in the assessment of a woman’s commitment and competence. When a woman chooses to have a career in physics, it is not some kind of hobby that is going to be abandoned once she reaches motherhood. Female physicists are working towards the same progress in physics that their male counterparts are also striving for. Motherhood is not something that deters them from this by any means, but lack of access to support while being a mother significantly reduces their capacity to work the same hours as most male physicists.  

Another stigma has risen in the wake of ‘equity’ policies enacted by many institutions. Equity policies do not demobilise those that are already well-represented in physics; they are implemented to provide equal opportunity, where it simply does not exist yet. Nevertheless, if you are a woman or a person of colour who is promoted, you may permanently be seen as someone who has only advanced because some diversity agenda is being pushed through, regardless of your prior accomplishments [5]. This places so much unwanted pressure on you to perform, a pedestal that many of your colleagues would be completely unfamiliar with. Why go through all that effort only to receive backlash when at one point you fail? It would surely be easier to stay in one role rather than to push yourself into the spotlight by seeking a promotion. This aspect of the negative climate that is built into academia is indeed a force that is stifling potential. 

Sexual Misconduct and Abuse  

The subject of sexual misconduct and abuse in higher education and academia is a subject that is often skirted around. The fact of the matter is that it has not been eradicated, it still happens, and the impact that it has on victims (who are typically female) is detrimental. Male-dominated fields like physics breed a bystander culture in which blatant sexism can be normalised, escalating to sexual misconduct [6]. How sexual harassment and abuse are handled within higher education institutions is a grave injustice to those who have summoned so much courage in reporting it. A study carried out by the 1752 group [6] found that out of 16 cases in which women reported sexual misconduct at their respective institutions in the UK, only one staff member lost his job. An even more horrific finding from this study is that all but four staff members engaging in sexual misconduct were reported to have targeted at least one other woman.  

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But how does something that is so obviously a gross miscarriage of justice come to fruition? The moment a victim reports someone responsible for their suffering, they are the ones that become perpetrators. They are the ones disturbing this delicately constructed rose-tinted view that prestigious higher education institutions cannot be oppressive. They are the ones that dare to ‘ruin someone’s career’ over something that they are being ‘sensitive’ about [6]. This response to reporting sexual misconduct is of course not just limited to the workplace. Chanel Miller, the survivor of the high-profile Stanford sexual assault case a few years ago, wrote in ‘Know My Name’ (which is quite possibly the best memoir that I’ve ever read): [7] 

“My pain was never more valuable than his potential.”

This sentence truly encapsulates the lack of empathy that survivors undergo while their case is investigated. How perpetrators are investigated is not in pursuit of justice for the victim, it is under frantic pressure to give the perpetrator and the institution a redemption story; this story finds it all too easy to frame the victim as anything but that – a victim. How can a woman go back to her career after the investigation closes due to ‘unsubstantial evidence’ or even a settlement that characterises her as only being after financial gain? The job and the subject that she might have once loved become inherently associated with the trauma that she has had to endure. It should be no surprise when the lack of support and validation that these women receive results in their resignation.  


It might be incredibly disheartening to see so many issues affect, to varying degrees, the women that we work with and respect. But there are solutions to each of the aforementioned issues, and if the advancement of women’s rights in the last century is anything to go by, we simply need to increase and retain our momentum in the fight for equality. If we choose to challenge the inequality that we see, we will surely be one step closer to real equality… and we’ll hopefully not have to wait 258 years to see it.  


References

[1] Briggs H. Closing the gender gap in physics “will take generations”. BBC News. 20 Apr 2018 [cited 20 Feb 2021]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43826143 

[2] Gibbs K. Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters. Scientific American. 10 Sep 2014 [cited 20 Feb 2021]. Available from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/diversity-in-stem-what-it-is-and-why-it-matters/ 

[3] Williams JC. The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM. Harvard Business Review. 24 Mar 2015 [cited 21 Feb 2021]. Available from: https://hbr.org/2015/03/the-5-biases-pushing-women-out-of-stem 

[4] Settles IH. Women in STEM: Challenges and determinants of success and well-being. American Psychological Association. Oct 2014 [cited 21 Feb 2020]. Available from: https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2014/10/women-stem 

[5] Zimmer L. Tokenism and Women in the Workplace: The Limits of Gender-Neutral Theory. Feb 1998 [cited 21 Feb 2021]. Social Problems,35(1), 64-77. Available from: DOI: 10.2307/800667 

[6] Bull A, Rye R. Silencing Students: Institutional Responses to Staff Sexual Misconduct in UK Higher Education. The 1752 Group. Sep 2018 [cited 22 Feb 2021]. Available from: https://1752group.com/sexual-misconduct-research-silencing-students/ 

[7] Miller C. Know My Name. United States of America: Penguin Random House; 2019.