Today is apparently Ada Lovelace day, a day when bloggers are meant to draw attention to the achievements of women in science and technology. Although I am aware of many women who have done and still do contribute greatly to science and technology, I had – embarrassingly – never heard of Ada Lovelace. It turns out she lived from 1815 to 1852 and was one of the world’s first computer programmers, working with Charles Babbage on his mechanical computer.
The idea behind Ada Lovelace day is for bloggers to “tell the world about these unsung heroines”, but I wasn’t really sure how to do this. I probably don’t know enough about any scientist (man or woman) to really do them justice in this blog. What I thought I would do instead was to write something that would at least support what I think is the goal of Ada Lovelace day : to highlight – even today – how underrepresented women are in some areas of science and technology. Certainly in most physics departments – or at least in the ones of which I’m aware – the fraction of permanent posts taken up by women is small. In mine, it’s something like 10% and none of the women in my department are yet professors, although this is largely because most of the women in my department are early to mid-career and aren’t yet in a position to really expect a promotion to professor. I would, however, expect this to change some time in the not too distant future.
A simple interpretation of why women are so underrepresented in physics departments today is that in the past they were clearly disadvantaged in some way, either directly or indirectly, and it will take some time to redress the balance. It takes something like 30 years to change completely the personnel in a department and so assuming that 50% of all future hires are women, it will take about 30 years before physics departments have an equal representation of men and women.
It is, however, somewhat more complicated than this. Even in PhD programmes, there is still not an equal number of men and women. In most physics departments something like 30% of the PhD students are women. This is clearly not ideal, but is probably an improvement on the recent past and means that we should expect at least 30% of academic hires in the near future to be women. However, when one looks at the make-up of research staff (i.e., non-permanent) in Physics departments today, the fraction of women in these post is often less than 20%. This is slightly concerning because most research staff have been hired recently and so why the fraction of women in these research posts is significantly less than the fraction of women in PhD positions suggests something is wrong. If a smaller fraction of women, compared to men, choose to continue with their academic careers, this implies that we won’t improve the current 1 in 10 ratio anytime soon.
The fact that the ratio of women to men in research positions decreases as you move through the different career stages is well documented and is often referred to as the “leaky pipe” syndrome. There are probably a number of reasons for this but, I believe, that we are now in a position where the ratio of women to men on a research job shortlist is similar to the ration of women to men who apply for the job. I also believe that the number of women hired into academic jobs is consistent with these ratios. This suggests that there is no obvious bias in the hiring and selection processes today. Presumably something is discouraging many women from continuing their academic/research careers. I don’t know what this is (or even that my interpretation is necessarily correct) but I do think we should do all we can to reverse this.
There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be striving to have diverse and balanced physics departments. If there is something about academic careers that particularly discourages women compared to men then we should try to work out what this is and do something about it. Maybe it is seen as too competitive and aggressive. Maybe the methods we use to determine quality disadvantage women compared to men, although I think all would benefit from a more balanced – and less simplistic – view of what it takes to be a good academic and researcher. An organisation that is trying to help is Athena SWAN. They do this by encouraging universities and university departments to have responsible working practices that don’t disadvantage women or, in fact, anyone who has, for example, family responsibilities.
I don’t really know how to increase the ratio of women to men in physics departments, but I do think we should strive to do so. It is in no one’s interest to have a system that disadvantages one group of people compared to another. We should be aiming to give everyone (men or women) an equal chance to contribute to science and technology, now and in the future. We can continue to have an Ada Lovelace day that highlights the contribution of women to science and technology prior to the 21st century, but I would like to think that at some point in the near future men and women will be contributing equally and we won’t need to have a day that particularly highlights one group’s contribution.