I recently attended the launch of a new report by the Institute of Physics jointly done with the Royal Astronomical Society, Gazing at the Future. The report looks at the experiences of male and female physics and astronomy researchers during their PhDs and their expectations of whether or not they will enter academia after the PhD.
The stats in the report make pretty depressing reading: female doctoral students rate the overall experience of their doctorate lower than their male peers; and the proportion of female doctoral students happy with their doctorate is on average 7% lower than for male doctoral students. Only just over 55% of female doctoral students across all years of study agree that they would make good research scientists (70% of male students overall would agree).
Particularly stark was the finding that 48% of female students, in their final year, envisage that they might have a university role in 3-5 years’ time, compared with 65% of male students.
The report suggests reasons behind these stats, including the issue of a lack of role models (thus reinforcing unconscious bias amongst recruiters and setting an unconscious bar on ambition on the part of candidates).
It doesn’t seem to me, though, that physics and astronomy are particularly alone in these findings. While efforts such as Athena SWAN and the Equality Charter Mark, as well as the fantastic photos of female professors in the Strand building, all help to promote academia as a welcoming place for women, the conversations I have with female researchers across all Faculties point to structural issues around the competition for grants and working culture that are off-putting. In fairness, they are often off-putting to men looking for work/life balance too.
What to do? Find resilience, set examples, seek good advice, take opportunities. Find a mentor, find a ‘supporter’ [someone who actively looks for opportunities for you], and don’t be pigeonholed. Think about protecting your self-esteem and promoting your self-confidence. And retain a love for research.