Why I don’t feel like celebrating this International Women’s Day

A leaky pipe

There is only one woman with the title of professor in my university’s physics department. There has never been more than one. Sometimes, I think there never will be.

At the current rate of progress, the gender gap in physics will take more than 250 years to close.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that physics is the hardest science. But unless there’s some drastic change, this generation’s grandkids will be dead before physicists master the art of hiring and awarding grants to women.

Whose problem is it anyway?

Efforts to diversify physics move at a glacial pace. They barely go beyond finger-pointing. There’s no motivation, no sense of shared responsibility. The hand-wringing from people with the power to enact change makes me sick.

“Teachers are the problem” – how can academics do anything when girls don’t take physics at A-level? “Parents are the problem” – how can teachers do anything when girls just aren’t interested in physics? Why examine any successful, evidence-backed diversity programs from other areas of STEM when you can just look like you’re doing something?

Spider-man pointing at Spider-man meme

You don’t need to be a genius to know it will take more than lab tours and career talks.

Blaming women.

The “girls aren’t interested enough” argument deserves as much scorn as “girls aren’t smart enough”. It’s neurosexism in another guise – it’s “women’s brains are better suited to caring professions”.

One thing’s for sure – physics, as a field, doesn’t care. Outreach efforts are invariably seen as women’s work, a distraction from real physics (the tough stuff).

I decided two years ago I wouldn’t convince any girls that they should aspire to be physicists. I can’t tell them an amazing academic career awaits them. I no longer feel a sense of duty to shove more young women into the pipeline – so now I’m part of the problem.

Over 20% of UK physics undergraduates are women. So why are only 12% of professors? If you accept that women are capable of physics, and that they want physics careers, then justifications for the low number are limited.

The ill-informed point to women leaving the workforce for family commitments, as if this explains the entire gap. But the proportion of women in senior positions in physics is lower than in most other STEM fields – women in physics aren’t having more children.

Regardless, this is a contributing factor that leaders have the power to solve. Stop punishing women for career gaps. Provide dedicated return to work funding. Pay women enough to make working worth their while.

The disparity cannot and should not be explained away.

Blaming women for leaving deliberately ignores those in the field who aren’t being promoted at the same rate as men. So if you think women are getting the opportunities they deserve, then what you’re really saying is that women are lesser physicists.

Academic hiring practices disadvantage women. Women get less funding to do physics, their papers get rejected more often, and their publications get fewer citations. This is because of sexism and is not a reflection of women’s ability to do science. Ranking researchers solely on these metrics is sexist.

The unwillingness to act, or to even properly investigate, leads me to believe most physicists either don’t see the lack of gender diversity as a problem, or they are completely apathetic.

Some women do leave physics because they want to. But what has led to that decision? Maybe physicists could actually do something about it, maybe the field could change.

We care about equality. No, not like that.

I’m part of my uni’s women in physics committee. We mainly exist to support each other. And what little campaigning we do has been met with derision from both men and women.

The committee started a poster series highlighting women in the department after realising the walls were covered in posters of men. The difference being the men are Nobel Prize winners and we are young women who don’t deserve to be visible.

After tweeting about a spate of poster vandalism, the department was suddenly (and briefly) interested in what we were doing. But the women in physics group wasn’t founded to look good – it’s not my job to make women want to study and work there.

If the department was really concerned about their appeal, the uni wouldn’t have produced an all-male physics promotional video (even the B-roll doesn’t focus on any women).

I’m done with expecting people in power to do anything when they can barely be bothered to feign concern. And why should they? The status quo serves the men at the top. They don’t want change. And there is nothing I can do that will incentivise them without risking my career.

So I won’t be joining in my uni’s International Women’s Day ‘celebrations’. I’m not sending in my photos for the college’s annual Instagram story. I’m tired of leaning in to a system designed to push people out.

Edit: I originally stated that 7% of UK physics professors are women, but I’ve been sent a more recent report showing that it’s actually 12%. I think we can agree it’s still not good enough.

One thought on “Why I don’t feel like celebrating this International Women’s Day

  1. This is a very interesting and very sad story. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not just limited to Physics. I’ve experienced much of what you’ve described as a woman working in cancer biology/biochemistry. It’s all too typical for the majority of undergrads, PhD students, and even post-docs be women – but then when you look at the top? The lab heads? The professors? 90% (or more) are men. I personally decided it was time to leave academia after becoming pregnant with my second son – everything just became way too complicated and I couldn’t see a way through (I had to rely on others to do my lab work (because I couldn’t safely do some of it while pregnant), I had to limit my days to childcare opening times, I got treated as if I didn’t care about my work because I decided to also have kids…). It’s just a mess of a system – there need to be some major paradigm shifts to instigate the kind of real change that will retain women in the system and give them the opportunities and career advancement that they deserve.


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