Today is Ada Lovelace day. Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers and the idea about the day is to draw attention to the achievements of women in science and technology. I’m very supportive of this as women are very under-represented in many of the sciences and highlighting their achievements so as to encourage more women to consider careers in science is a good thing to do (in my view at least). I was going to try and write something, but didn’t really know what to say. I thought, instead, that I would reblog something I wrote a couple of years ago. It pretty much says what I think and, given that few read it originally, it probably makes sense to recycle it. I don’t, however, expect the readership to increase substantially.

To the left of centre

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…

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Why women leave academia

There was a very interesting article in the Guardian yesterday about why women, preferentially, leave academia. It was based on an analysis of chemistry PhD students. Essentially, at the beginning of a chemistry PhD 72% of women would like a career in research compared to 61% for men. At the end of the PhD, however, the percentage of women interested in a research career had dropped to 37%, while for men it had remained fairly steady (59%).

The study suggested that there were many aspects of an academic career that people found unappealing, but “women in greater numbers than men see academic careers as all-consuming, solitary and as unnecessarily competitive”. The certainly gels with my own views. What we now value in an academic are characteristics and qualities that may, preferentially, disadvantage women more than men. Maybe, disadvantage is the wrong word; maybe it is simply that what is required for a successful academic careers discourages a higher fraction of women than men.

I have, however, heard many suggest that this no longer really matters. There is no inherent discrimination (or at least there is no real evidence of it) and a woman has, by and large, as much chance as a man to have a successful academic career. Women are simply choosing not to follow an academic career path. I do, however, have a fundamental problem with this argument. If, as the study suggests, there are indeed aspects of an academic career that preferentially discourage women when compared to men, this argument then implies that these aspects are somehow necessary or optimal.

It certainly seems that a successful academic career requires a certain amount of single-mindedness, aggression, competitiveness, and other characteristics that may well disadvantage women when compared to men. If one could show that these characteristics were optimal for an academic career and that it was just unfortunate that more men were suited to this than women, I might buy the argument that everything is essentially fine. It’s not, however, obvious to me that these characteristics are indeed optimal. If the prime role of an academic is to lead a major research project, bring in lots of money, and aggressively push your views to the detriment of others, then maybe this would be the case. I certainly think that this is not really what academia is all about. It’s about scholarship and research, engaging with and educating the public and students, and ultimately trying to improve our understanding of the world around us.

It’s certainly the case that competitiveness, aggression and desire to lead, do have an important place in academia. However, if these are the dominant characteristics then I think we do not have the ideal academic environment. There should be breadth and a range of different styles. The goals should be scholarship and research not simply big project that costs lots of money. I think we disadvantage ourselves by having an academic career path that preferentially discourages women when compared to men, although I don’t really have a good idea of how to fix this.

Ada Lovelace Day

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.