In this week’s blog, RCT/Merthyr hub student Beth Lisles talks about women in physics, and why women shouldn’t be afraid of pushing themselves to succeed in a field still dominated by men.
If you Google “Women in Physics” the first few hits you get are about the WOP societies at various universities or lists of notable women in the field. However, go down to about the seventh suggestion you get an article entitled “Women in Physics face Big Hurdles – Still”, it takes a critical look at the numbers surrounding the deficit in uptake and continued study of physics and partially apportions it to the lack of female role models in the physical sciences.
This is something that I have observed in my own physics education. I was one of four ladies who started Physics AS and this shrunk by half before the AS exams while the other was accepted into Yale (in the USA) to study Mathematics. This may well have been down to a lack of fellowship and due to the changing nature of their physics education, or the undermined confidence in their abilities. It can happen all too often with young women in physics that they feel their core maths skills aren’t as strong as they should be; this continues into higher education with a proportion of students not undertaking degrees or post-graduate qualifications in physics when their results would prove that they are more than capable.
But is there any real reason for this other than lack of confidence? I don’t think so. Academia has seen the negative effects of its biases, where benefiting from a mostly male viewpoint leads to exclusion of female ideas. As such, positive biases have been instituted to counteract this effect. These include the numerous WOP societies and unions at universities and across the world, as well as the many scholarships offered to undergraduate and post-graduate women. Having applied to the King’s College London Women in Science Scholarship and in researching for this post, finding the Roche University Bursary then drastically trying to complete the application before 5pm, I realised that help is available for us ladies in science if we only look for it. However, it is a bit hidden away.
This made me think again about the role models in our community – the hidden ones and those that are more well known. So, here’s a little list of our lovely lady scientists and their accomplishments:
- Hypatia – Roman Egyptian, studied and taught mathematics, astronomy and philosophy while there were very few women in science (ca. AD 350/370 – March 415).
- Maria Goeppert Mayer – Nobel Prize in Physics 1963 for “discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure” (with E. P. Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen).
- Marie Curie nee Sklodowska – Nobel Prise in Physics 1903 (with husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel) “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”. Followed by the 1911 Prize (for Chemistry), shared with Pierre, for their discovery of radium and polonium.
- Mary Somerville – studied maths and astronomy against the wishes of her father and was the second female scientist to gain recognition in the UK (1780 – 1872).
- Lise Meitner – a nuclear physicist and part of the team that discovered nuclear fission but was passed over for the Nobel Prize which was awarded only to her male colleague (1878 – 1968).
- Ada Yonath – the first female Israeli to win a Nobel Prize for her research into ribosomal structure and function using crystallography.
- Mae Jemison – the first African American woman in outer space and founder of a technology company focusing on applications of technology in everyday life.
In these cases, the women have often had to overcome situations imposed on them by a patriarchal society and break free of the biases placed upon them. If they can do it, so can we. There are role models out there. So ladies, if you need a boost and you’re feeling down about your abilities, skills and prospects take a look at some of these amazing women and use them as inspiration to see just how far you could go.