Female professors: still a rare breed

Physics World
September 2000, page 8

Women rarely make it to the top in physics. Sharon Ann Holgate spoke to a few who have, and asked what can be done to encourage more women to follow in their footsteps

When people ask Susan Cooper, head of particle physics at Oxford University, what her job is, “the reaction is usually astonished silence,” she says. Cooper is in fact one of only a handful of women physics professors in the UK. Women hold only about 2% of physics chairs in Britain, a stark indicator of how difficult it is to attract women, and girls, into physics.

“I think peer pressure has a lot to do with it,” says Athene Donald, professor in soft-condensed-matter physics at Cambridge University. “As long as boys say – whether or not they believe it – that physics and maths are not for girls, some girls will not want to contend with the hassle. Single-sex teaching may help in some cases, but is not a cure all,” she says.

Ruth Lynden-Bell, professor in the atomistic simulation group at Queen’s University Belfast recommends “more publicity about women scientists, and more work persuading schoolgirls to do physics” as a remedy. This sentiment was also expressed by an international panel of physicists who carried out a review of UK physics earlier this year.

Attracting schoolgirls into physics

The fact that only one in five physics undergraduates is female represents “a significant, unrealized potential”, according to the panel’s report. It also recommends that a special effort should be made to attract 12-14 year-old schoolgirls into physics. Christine Davies, head of theoretical particle physics at Glasgow University, believes that this is a good age group to target, “but I don’t have any magic recipe for enthusing them about physics,” she says. “Physics is a very broad subject and means different things to different people. I think you have to be careful not to imagine that everyone will be turned onto physics by ‘gee-whizzery’. I was always more interested in the neat theoretical ideas.”