“There is a problem with women in physics. It’s not the ones we’ve got, it’s the ones we’ve lost.
A report by the Science and Technology Select Committee released earlier this month asks universities to do more to stop the female brain drain in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM for short). It’s a subject that can be a potential minefield to discuss because answers are complex and difficult.
But it is interesting to look at the numbers to see where and how often this brain drain occurs, why it’s such an issue, if it is only women who go missing, and what we (yes, all of us) can do about it. I’ll limit my discussion to physics, but I’m sure that some of the issues touched on here apply more generally.
The UK’s problem is that it is short not just of women in physics, but of STEM graduates in general. To give an example, the Institute of Physics estimates that England is short of at least 4,000 physics teachers. And the skills gap doesn’t stop here. The government wants to “rebalance” the economy away from financial services and in a direction reliant on a STEM-qualified workforce . With an annual UK physics undergraduate cohort of only 4,000 this is going to take some time to achieve.
But physics, recently, has seen something of a rise in popularity. This might be due to better teaching initiatives, more science coverage on television, or the fantastic and inspirational scientific research that is happening at CERN and elsewhere at the moment. Whatever the cause, the number of students taking A-level physics has risen by 14% since 2006 – a welcome step considering that the number of A-level physics entrants halved between 1982 and 2006. Undergraduate student numbers are rising too – by 25% between 2004 and 2009 , something we’ve also seen mirrored in our Liverpool intake. There doesn’t seem to be a leak in the pipeline from A-level to degree.
The explanations for the drop are complex, but are correlated with teaching environment and the availability of physics-qualified teachers. It’s the brain drain here that the government generally focus on – which is not a brain drain that universities can tackle directly.
Another brain drain occurs in academia. This is the one highlighted by the Select Committee report mentioned earlier, and it is something we can do something about.
Before seeing the numbers, I assumed that the brain drain occurred on the way to securing a permanent academic job, because getting one of these isn’t easy. It usually involves several short term research contracts, where you work like mad to establish yourself and then waste much of the final year of one job applying for the next. Competition is fierce. There is no job security and no guarantee that you can find work where your partner is. You stick with it because you love what you do, but it’s not a good working environment for anyone.
Let’s look at the numbers. Some 20% of physics lecturers are female. Surprisingly to me, the brain drain occurs later in the career structure. Some 7% of physics professors are female. Our department at Liverpool matches these averages almost perfectly (and has only recently reached them).
Practising positive discrimination to fix up the numbers would not be helpful, but addressing any underlying causes that give rise to women disappearing is. Something can’t be right – there’s nothing intrinsic to gender that affects ability. Women may disappear from the system preferentially, but you can bet the underlying causes affect men too, and this makes it important to fix them for the good of everyone.
So what can we do about it?
Schemes like ATHENA Swan have been established to improve working environments for women, but these improvements benefit everyone. Having flexible working hours, ensuring that noone is left out for promotion or reward who deserves consideration, keeping decisions transparent, ensuring fairness, recognising achievements, ensuring female (and male) representation, addressing everyone’s unconscious (and conscious) bias are encouraged and are all extremely positive moves. I don’t have the solution but I do know that improving departmental life for everyone, and making it normal to have a mixture of the best qualified men and women at every level, actively contributing, can only help.
In small ways, Liverpool is already contributing to the whole debate. Remember that Select Committee report? One of our particle physics PhD students, Myfanwy Borland, managed the women in STEM inquiry for the committee whilst acting as an STFC funded POST Fellow. Let’s hope that this sparks progress.
Improving the working environment, and making it fair and open, is something every university can tackle. And so can you. So, how do you think we can improve the situation? Post your ideas as comments, and let’s see what we can implement.”