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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices


Noted Scientist Shares Her Journey


Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland at the University of Oxford and a former president of the Institute of Physics

Jocelyn Bell Burnell delivers her plenary talk at the 2012 Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Congress in Orlando, FL. Photo by Ken Cole.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow in the 1960s, I was the only woman in a class of 50. I lived with other women, but there weren’t any in my physics class. Whenever any woman entered the university hall, the men in the class all banged and whistled and catcalled. They were following a university tradition, doing what the senior students had taught them was normal to do. I don’t think they thought very hard about it.

I could understand those young students doing what they had been taught by the older students, but the faculty must have been aware of it, and they did nothing. That annoyed me quite a bit. It was isolating. It meant that I didn’t have anyone to work with, so I had to solve all the problems myself.

Today it’s still a struggle in Britain to get women into physics. An undergraduate physics course is reckoned to be doing quite well if 25 percent of the class is female.

If you go to other countries, the situation is very different. For example, I was speaking at a physics conference in Malaysia and told a woman there that I wanted to see more women in physics. She asked why. It turns out that 40 percent of the undergraduate physicists in Malaysia are men and 60 percent are women. In China you find many women scientists and engineers. Quite a lot of southeast Asia recognizes that women can do science and engineering, and women are often encouraged to do so.

There is a huge range for the number of women in my own field, astronomy. The country with the largest proportion of women professional astronomers is Argentina at 37 percent. The country with the least is Japan at 6 percent. The United States and the United Kingdom sit a little below the world average of 15 percent.

This has nothing to do with brains. It’s the result of cultural differences. But making cultural changes is a long, slow process.

One of the concerning things is that the number of women is growing at the more junior levels, but the percolation through to full professor isn’t always happening. The pipeline leaks. At each academic hurdle, a higher proportion of women than men quit. In the United Kingdom between two-thirds and three-fourths of female science and engineering graduates quit their fields fairly quickly after earning their degrees.

I’ve got some hunches as to why that is, but my hunches really need testing with proper exit interviews, which are not consistently carried out. Family issues are often cited when a woman leaves academia. I think that’s an excuse. I think many women just don’t enjoy the atmosphere or the ethos in some science and engineering departments, and they decide to try their luck in something else.

If a woman is in a very small minority, she simply has to behave like a man to survive. That, of course, has its cost, but I don’t think you have a choice. Only when you have a critical mass in a department, I think, does it start to change character.

The subject has been male dominated for a long time. I don’t believe that there is direct discrimination, but I believe there is a lot of “unthinkingness.” A postgraduate I spoke with observed that new male postgraduate students at her university were allowed by their advisors to choose their topics, while the females were directed to topics. It’s a lack of thought, a lack of sensitivity.

That’s improving quite rapidly. Partly because the older men now in some cases have daughters going into science, engineering, and technology. These fathers are starting to see things through their daughters’ eyes. Also, the younger men are spending more time sharing in the family responsibilities.

But there are still different rules for the genders. I know of a couple that has two small kids. He studies physics, and she is in theology. They decided that the optimal arrangement would be if they each worked four days. They went to the heads of their departments to ask. Her head said yes, that would be fine, which day do you want off? His head said absolutely not, don’t even think about it.

New legislation that is supposed to be coming in Britain would give men more paternity leave so that young babies aren’t seen as the responsibility of just the women. That would help. So would holding important meetings within what are called core hours, which correspond to school hours, so that parents can leave early to collect their kids. Flexible working conditions would help, as would having available at all levels the option of part-time work. At the moment part-time work is confined to lower pay grades and is considered inferior. Seeing part-time posts available for prestigious roles as well would be a big step forward.

Some very good programs running in Britain now accredit departments as women friendly. Athena SWAN, for instance, is an elaborate award scheme that judges how fair to everyone a department is. There’s a threat that universities won’t be able to apply for government research funding unless they are accredited in this way. The approach in the United States has been different. The National Science Foundation has given money for a program called ADVANCE that has made a big difference in universities that have held that funding.

Attaching financial rewards can also be very effective. Merit payment can reward the chairman of a department in which women get promoted or hired.

Hopefully things will keep improving with time. In the meantime, I encourage all women studying physics to hang in there! Female students seeking support can contact harassment officers if things get pretty serious. If an issue is within the normal course of events, quite often universities have a women’s group established by a frustrated academic that sees it as the only way out. But those groups tend to be ad hoc and local. Professional bodies like the Institute of Physics quite often have local women’s networks that are worth exploring, as well. //

Preventing the End of the World

by Marquette University’s SPS chapter

In her light-hearted and entertaining plenary talk at the 2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress (PhysCon), Jocelyn Bell Burnell discussed several popular theories for the end of the world. Many of the theories violated the laws of physics so absurdly it was hard to believe anyone could take them to be possible.

One theory was that the magnetic poles of Earth would switch, causing the planet to come to a complete stop and reverse its rotation. Another claimed an alignment of the planets would cause a gravitational pull on Earth strong enough to rip the planet in half. “That’s totally how gravity works,” a student in the audience sarcastically called out. While quite amusing to a room full ofup-and-coming physicists, the talk was also a clear and frightening statement about the lack of scientific understanding in our society.

Most of these ridiculous concepts are actually grounded in some scientific fact, said Bell Burnell. Her point was that purveyors of unfounded theories are trying to use science—badly misconstrued science—to understand the world. If only scientific programs put more of an effort into educating the general public, people could better discern scientific truth from fiction, mitigating beliefs in such impossible theories.
It is our duty as a scientific community to reach out and aid in providing a stronger foundation of public education. As Bell Burnell indicated, when scientific education is not encouraged in schools, we raise a scientifically illiterate population that cannot distinguish between reliable information and false premises presented under the guise of scientific fact. This in turn circles back around to hurt the scientific community. //

Listen to a complete audio recording of Dr. Bell Burnell’s talk on the PhysCon website:

No-Bell Prize

The 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, which recognized the discovery of pulsars, caused a controversy. Jocelyn Bell Burnell did not share in the prize. Many people believe she should have. Her analysis of data collected by a telescope she helped to build revealed untidy fluctuations coming from a distinct source—the signature of a pulsing object. She discusses the work, the controversy, and other aspects of her life in a 2000 interview transcribed by the American Institute of Physics at

Connecting Women

Empowering women in academia and science has become an important priority for many
organizations, from universities and nonprofits to scientific societies and national laboratories.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW):

The Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) @ The American
Physical Society (APS):

Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics:

Association for Women in Science:

Women in Physics @ the Institute of Physics (IOP):

Women in Physics Resource Collection hosted by Fermilab:

Athena SWAN:


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