Young Women's Perceptions and Experiences of Becoming a Research Physicist

Whitelegg, Elizabeth; Hodgson, Barbara; Scanlon, Eileen and Donovan, Claire (2002). Young Women's Perceptions and Experiences of Becoming a Research Physicist. In: Proceedings of 12th International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists, 27-31 Jul 2002, Ottawa, Canada.


The research presented here focuses on young women's (under 30 years of age) views of their future careers in physics research and the barriers and constraints they have already experienced and those they anticipate in the future. This research is timely because of girls' increasing success in educational achievement throughout school and university levels.

Our initial survey of female members of the Institute of Physics showed that only 15% of young women under 30 said they encountered barriers in their careers compared to 45% of women over 30 years. However the young women described situations that clearly were barriers and were gender related, but they didn–t recognize them as such. The initial survey detected a drift away from research careers in the over 30s and so this research sought explanations for this by examining the younger women's perceptions of future careers.

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  • Item ORO ID
  • 6517
  • Item Type
  • Conference or Workshop Item
  • Extra Information
  • The commentary below refers to a PowerPoint presentation attached:
    The supply of female physicists into physics-related careers has been described using the metaphor of a pipeline that narrows along its length. Using the pipeline model we would expect that as more girls achieve success in physics at school, the entry point to the pipeline, a greater number will eventually flow out of the other end of the pipeline. However, as illustrated by slides 4 to 12, this model has been shown to be insufficient as the numbers flowing out at the pipeline terminus has not increased in line with this increasing educational achievement in physics. (Slides 4-10 have been created using data from the SET4Women website) (Specifically, slide 4 shows the decline in the number of candidates taking A-level physics in England over the period 1992 � 2002 when the number of female A level physics candidates has decreased by 16% compared to a 22% decrease in male candidates. Slide 9 shows the very slow increase in the numbers of women in full-time employment in UK HEIs. Assistant professors (lecturers) only increased by 0.6% over 7 years and research staff actually decreased in 2000/01. [These figures only illustrate the position in universities as figures for industrial sectors are not readily available but the IOP has recently initiated a project to remedy this. However data shows that across the EU in the public sector (in all SET) � i.e. universities and research institutes - the proportion of female researchers is about 30 %. In industrial research the situation is worse with only 15 % of the researchers being female (DG Research, Women in Industrial Research Project).] Slide 10 shows the position for part-time employment in physics in universities. Although part-time work is favoured by some women during periods in their careers when, for example, caring responsibilities are heavy, more part-time positions are occupied by men. Slide 11 shows the decline in the proportion of female members of the IOP by age. This decline cannot be due to an increase in those graduating more recently as the proportion has remained steady at around 20% over the last 10 years and was 16% in 1980 and 10% in 1960. Finally slide 11 is the well known �scissors� diagram from the EU report on mainstreaming gender equality in science. The diagram summarises the picture painted by the preceding slides and illustrates comparisons across six EU member states.)

    Key messages from the research cover two areas - perceived institutional employment practices which may be seen as subtly discriminating against women and the prevalent male culture or atmosphere in physics research which contributes to the leaky pipeline in physics employment in the UK. Following the initial survey of IOP members, the research focussed on young female researchers. It used qualitative research methods (i.e. in-depth interviews) to uncover issues and factors affecting career choices. Contradictory messages emerged from the qualitative and quantitative data. The survey data suggested a low incidence of negative factors affecting women�s views of their future careers but views offered by respondents in the interviews give the opposite impression. In particular, women who say they have not met obstacles then go ahead and list them. Slide 16 outlines the reasons women may give up on a career in research, although many of the respondents did not see these as gender related. This may be because women tend to accept the status quo and so don�t see any discrimination - although they may be unhappy, they choose to get on with things rather than trying to change the environment they find themselves in maybe because they view this as �natural� physics practice, having experienced this practice over a long period. Slide 20 illustrates the respondents� perceptions of difficult issues surrounding funding for continuing in a research career. Although there are research grants which enable career breaks for example, many of the young researchers weren�t aware of them, or even felt that the award of such a grant would be viewed as being of lower status than the �regular� awards.

    The young women had high ambitions for their future careers but were very aware of work/life balance issues and were concerned to find a career that provided space for a life outside work. Many of these women had never spoken to anyone about these concerns before and were worried about doing so before they were established as they were reluctant to �rock the boat�.

    This research shows that the pipeline model is insufficient to explain the low numbers of women at higher levels in physics research positions and suggests that institutional structures need to change in order for more women to be able to participate in physics research at higher levels. These young women didn�t come to research careers with a blank sheet, they have already undergone the socialisation of being in a minority and have jumped many hurdles on their way with each hurdle demanding yet greater effort. Established staff can help or hinder the effects of this socialisation according to their own awareness and willingness to go beyond the status quo. Leadership from senior management is essential if cultures are to change and the research lab become a place where young women feel comfortable and wish to remain to develop successful careers.

    URLs referred to:
    EU report on gender mainstreaming:
  • Keywords
  • gender; career; retention; physics research; pipeline model
  • Academic Unit or School
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) > Physical Sciences
    Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
    Institute of Educational Technology (IET)
  • Depositing User
  • Liz Whitelegg