The Token Female

by | Nov 9, 2020 | Community, Education, Women

“I wanted to be a physicist at a young age thanks to Mr Spock and Data, neither of whom are women, 100% human or even real!”

I grew up during the 1980s in a mining village in Barnsley where the village hall was used to teach the boys how to box and the girls how to dance. Never the other way round – yes, Billy Elliot could have been set in Barnsley. I don’t understand why it wasn’t socially acceptable for boys to learn to dance or girls to box in the 1980s, but it really concerns me that in 2020 things are basically the same.

I split my time between two worlds: my work world, physics, and my hobby world, dancing. One is heavily male dominated, one is heavily female dominated. I’m going to mainly talk about something I am, ‘female physicist’, a term I hate as I’m a ‘physicist’. My gender, race and skin colour shouldn’t be part of my job title. Diversity in science and technology is poor, think 16% of women in technical roles across the UK, and my normal meetings being with more Dave’s than women and non-white attendees combined. To get a more representative group of people working in industry and academia we need to change how things currently work in schools and universities and provide alternative routes like apprenticeships. I would like to think that everyone who could do an A level, degree, or apprenticeship in physics is encouraged to do so. If this were the case there would be no diversity issue. A person’s ability in physics has as much to do with their gender and ethnicity as it does their footwear. Sadly, I know from personal experience this is not the case.

‘How do you get more girls interested in physics?’ is a question I’m often asked. For a long time, I wasn’t sure I was the right person to answer this, after all I studied physics with no persuasion. Actually, I did it with a huge number of people with a myriad of reasons why I shouldn’t do physics because, you guessed it, I’m a girl. So, maybe I am the right person and I can point out some of the ridiculous things I’ve been told along the way. My favorite is still from my chemistry teacher, who after looking at my nails told me, “People who do physics don’t wear nail varnish.” I’m a huge Queen fan and therefore produced a picture of the physicist Brian May wearing nail varnish as a clear counter example to his ridiculous statement. Whilst we are myth busting, another one we really have to dispel is that you have to be a genius to do physics, it’s so not true. Physics is accessible to everyone at all ages, just think of all the popular science books.

Campaigns to get women into physics have been around for 20+ years, I know I’ve been involved with various activities since I started my degree in 1996. However, the percentage of female students studying A level physics has stuck at 20% and not budged. We need a new course of action.

So, what can we do to get a more diverse set of people studying and working in physics? Great physics teachers who encourage talent are the backbone of the current pipeline. However only 51% of people who teach physics in secondary schools actually have a physics degree. Identifying talent and passing on passion is difficult to do in a subject other than your own. Outreach work does make a huge difference to how students think of their options. But outreach is not continuous, and to scale it to reach all people, families and students is almost impossible.

Representation is becoming a popular solution to diversity – ‘how can a girl aspire to be X if they haven’t seen a woman do it’. I have issues with this. I think it assumes children have a real lack of imagination. I wanted to be a physicist at a young age thanks to Mr Spock and Data, neither of whom are women, 100% human or even real! However, raising the profile of underrepresented people in science is easy to do, and having an inspiration who is a living breathing woman can’t be a bad thing, so let’s go for it. Check out the growing representation of women and minorities doing great science on Wikipedia and Twitter, look out for local physics outreach activities and campaigns.

I think we need to remove all the little things, those casual sexist remarks that add up over the years and subliminally teach children to conform to an outdated view of society. Baby grows with pink fluffy unicorns for girls and blue tractors for boys, and nothing changes as we grow up. Why can’t girls be interested in tractors and boys in unicorns? Why is being a dancing teacher a good career choice for a woman and not a man? Why are people perpetually surprised when I tell them I’m a physicist, but it’s totally acceptable for my husband to be one? Why do I still get referred to at work as ‘the token female’? Why am I always put front and centre of all photos other than for proof that the lesser spotted female physicist exists.

I think the thing we can all do that will have the biggest impact on increasing diversity in all sectors is challenge the casual assumptions of society’s stereotypes. We know what these are, but I have to say on a personal note: women can do physics and men can dance. Start at birth and don’t stop questioning, not perpetuating the current norm. We are the people responsible for making changes to our world, so go forth and do what you can to make things better.


Tamara is an independent consultant specialising in Radio Frequency Engineering and data science at her company Swamphen Enterprises. Alongside consultancy work Tamara is a regular speaker and trainer with a passion for teaching people to code and develop their data science skills in a friendly and supportive environment: https://swamphen.co.uk. Follow her on social medial @SwamphenEnts

 


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