Slow Progress for Female Physics Professors

One of the more pleasant jobs I have to do these days is to congratulate staff in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex when they get promoted, whether it be to Senior Lecturer, Reader or Professor. There has been quite a crop of promotions at all levels in the School recently, owing to the excellent contributions made by so many people to teaching, research and other aspects of the work we do.

One of the successful promotion candidates in the latest round was the Head of our Experimental Particle Physics group, Antonella de Santo, whose promotion to Professor of Physics makes her the first ever female Professor of Physics at the University of Sussex. I’m rather embarrassed to admit that, actually, as the University has existed for 51 years, but at least I can say better late then never!

Anyway, Antonella’s well-deserved success prompted me to look into the statistics of female physics & astronomy professors. I’ve already posted about how the proportion of female undergraduates studying physics as been stuck at around the 20% mark for a decade despite strenuous efforts to widen participation. A recent (2012) study by the Institute of Physics contains a wealth of statistical information about staff in Physics departments, which I encourage people to read if they’re interested in the overall issue with equality and diversity in physics. Here I’ll just pull out the figure (based on a 2010 survey) that out of a total of 650 Professors of Physics (and/or Astronomy) in the UK, just 5.5% were female. At that date about 20 physics departments had no female professors at all; that would have included Sussex, of course.

Another University, Liverpool, also recently appointed its first female Professor of Physics in the person of Tara Shears, another particle physicist. The current  Head of the  Department of Physics at Imperial Collge is Joanna Haigh, (who I thought was the first to occupy such a position until corrected by the comment below) so there are signs that career prospects are improving for female physicists, but progress is painfully slow. The first ever female Professor of Physics in the United Kingdom was Daphne Jackson, a nuclear physicist, who took up her Chair at the University of Surrey way back in 1971. It’s interesting to note that when Daphne Jackson studied physics as an undergraduate at Imperial College she was one of only two women among the 88 undergraduates in her year.

I don’t personally think that there’s a significant gender bias when it comes to the consideration of promotion cases at the University of Sussex (or at any other institution I’ve worked at), but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that women are much more reluctant than men to put themselves forward for consideration at any level. I hope that recent successes in MPS, such as Antonella’s Professorship and Readerships for astronomer Kathy Romer and mathematician Vanessa Styles, will provide the necessary encouragement.

28 Responses to “Slow Progress for Female Physics Professors”

  1. Congratulations to Antonella and Tara. But Jo Haigh was not the first ever female Head of Department. Three others that I know pre-dated her are Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Anne Tropper and Gillian Gehring – there may well have been others.

    • telescoper Says:

      Oops! I was misled by a colleague about that. Thanks for the correction. I’ll edit while I hang my head in shame.

  2. As I’m giving a talk on women in Astronomy this evening I shall be stealing statistics from this left right and centre!

    One of the main problems is that physics isn’t seen as being a subject friendly to women so girls are put off from an early age. Less than half of all schools have ANY girls studying physics at A-Level. I don’t think this is an inherent ‘girls just don’t want to do it’ attitude though. As a woman I can tell you I was actively put off the subject by my peers when I was younger. Every time you see a physicist or engineer it’s a man and this is only making the problem worse. For instance the “Brian Cox effect” has led to male submissions for physics going up by 6%. For girls it’s only 3%. There are few women reaching the higher levels because there are fewer women studying the subject.

    Gender preference for the subject aside, women do have problems reaching the higher levels, but this is a problem across the board, not just physics. There was a study done a while ago about hiring women in academia. If an identical CV was submitted but changing the name from Jonathan to Jennifer it was found that it was actually the female professors who judged the women more harshly. Unfortunately I can’t find the link to the study right now.

    • telescoper Says:

      I remember talking to a new female undergraduate student at Cardiff a couple of years ago. She told me her physics teacher (a man) had told her girls couldn’t do physics because their brains didn’t work the right way. With people like that as teachers it’s surprising that there aren’t even fewer female undergraduates.

  3. I agree in principle, but the fact is that (in the US at least), most traditional “women’s” jobs (teacher, nurse, child care, etc) are lower paid, so the opportunity cost to one gender being discouraged from entering those fields is lower than the other gender being discouraged from high-paying positions. That said, men who enter traditionally female-dominated fields often face similar, unfair stigmas as what face women interested in male-dominated fields.

  4. Phillip, I’m struggling to think of a ‘highly paid and/or prestigious profession[] where there are more women’. Maybe that tells us something.

    Also, a point about physics/astro specifically (though it probably applies elsewhere in UK academia too) is that the proportions of women decline as you go through from PhD student (where, at least on the astro side, we have something like equality) to postdoc to junior and senior lecturer, reader and professor. This is widely thought to suggest that we may be doing something wrong, independently of the overall fraction of women (though it’s probably at least partly due to the much smaller number of women entering postgrad physics 20 years ago).

  5. I enjoy reading this blog and I agree that it’s great to see talented female physicists being promoted. I’m also glad you’ve drawn attention to the issue of gender inequality; getting people talking about it is excellent. It’s particularly powerful when the person starting a conversation about promoting equality comes from the advantaged group. So, thank you.

    However, this post is also part of the problem. The statement:

    “I don’t personally think that there’s a significant gender bias when it comes to the consideration of promotion cases at the University of Sussex (or at any other institution I’ve worked at)…”

    is worrisome, because it seems to imply that either you think unconscious bias does not exist at Sussex and other institutions you’ve worked at, or you think it is insignificant. Yet unconscious bias is pervasive and powerful — I’d wager it’s even more powerful nowadays than those few dismissable dinosaurs on committees who say things like “girls’ brains don’t work the right way”. The CV example cited above is just one of many studies that consistently demonstrate the existence and strong influence of unconscious bias. The most recent version of the CV study I know of was specifically focused on the subtle bias of science faculty, and it is very much alive and well in 2012:

    The most worrying thing about your statement is that it has also been shown that those who are certain they are not biased are the most likely to let their bias influence their decisions. It’s hard to correct for something you don’t think exists.

    The “at least neither I nor my friends are part of the problem” complacency is so common among well-meaning colleagues that I often don’t bother to comment on it, but your blog is influential in the community, so I’m hoping you’ll be open-minded about this criticism. I am glad you’re helping to continue this conversation, and I hope next time you will consider just how powerful it could be for you and others in influential positions to acknowledge that we all have many biases and that working to actively minimize them is the best way forward. Until then I suspect the field will continue to be vulnerable to this uncorrected systematic effect.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ll quote the relevant part of the post:

      I don’t personally think that there’s a significant gender bias when it comes to the consideration of promotion cases at the University of Sussex (or at any other institution I’ve worked at)

      You will I hope agree that I never claimed to be “certain” that I am “not biased”. My experience of the specific process described here has, however, led me to believe that the process – which involves panels operating under strict guidelines – is not significantly biased with respect to gender, at least compared to that caused by the reluctance of (or more likely lack of encouragement of) women to put themselves forward. No system is perfect of course, and I fully admit that there all kinds of conscious and unconscious biases that beset women at all stages of their careers, but I do believe that they are worse at junior levels than at senior levels. In other words, the biggest trouble is that there is so much attrition of talented women before they reach professorial levels. There are other biases too, not just those arising from gender.

      The study you quote is of doubtful relevance. It relates to bias much further down the career ladder than I was discussing in my post as it discusses students applying for (presumably) an entry-level job. I’ve already stated that I think such biases are much worse earlier on.

      Having just spent part of this afternoon on another panel which led to the promotion of another woman (this time to a Chair in Psychology), I still believe that the big problem is at earlier career stages, not with the promotions process I was discussing in the post other than the fact that too few women put themselves in. I want to encourage more women to put themselves forward for promotion at all levels, but that’s going to be very difficult to achieve if potential candidates remain (in my view wrongly) convinced that the dice are loaded against them.

      That said, I agree that there’s a danger of complacency, so we must be constantly monitoring our procedures for evidence of bias – and we are. I don’t, however, see that as an alternative to the approach of encouraging more women to put themselves forward.

      • I agree, it’s not an alternative; both should happen.

        I don’t understand why you feel the problem of unconscious bias is worse at junior levels than senior levels. Do you mean that it has more effect in the long term when it influences a junior person’s behaviour, or that senior people are less likely to be biased? (Or something else?) If it’s the latter, I’m not familiar with the evidence for that. In fact, based on various studies I am under the impression that bias persists at least until there is a critical mass of the disadvantaged group. That would imply that, if anything, bias is less likely to be a factor for very junior people than for very senior people. I know I personally have noticed more incidences of casual sexism since I’ve become a postdoc compared to my PhD years (though they existed then as well, of course). So a statement that the results from the study involving the bias of science faculty don’t apply to more established science faculty doesn’t make sense to me.

        I would be really interested to hear more about the specific guidelines and procedures used by the panels you’ve been on to eliminate the effects of bias. I am not senior enough to have been on a promotion panel yet, but I have heard tales of discrimination both subtle and overt (mostly but not entirely related to gender) from people who have participated in panels from hiring of junior faculty to promotion to full professor. The stories from the senior levels are no more rare than the promotion cases themselves are at that level, and the buildup of such tales can be very disheartening, in part because so many senior people seem to ignore the evidence in favour of faith that the problem will go away on its own. But I’d love to be wrong, and I do agree that candidates who think the process is fair are more likely to put themselves forward than those who think they’ll be discriminated against in some way. So more details about what procedures to counter and eliminate biases work and what don’t, from someone who has been there, would be very illuminating.

      • telescoper Says:

        I only have time right now to answer the first point. I’ll try to return to the later things some other time. My reasoning is that for most junior-level faculty jobs there are many applications for each position so the first cut is extremely difficult. Our recent astro jobs, for example, had >100 applications. When there’s so much paperwork it’s much easier for selectors to be guided by prejudice, even subconsciously. When it’s a Chair promotion there’s only one applicant and the answer is a simple yes or no so there’s more time to view and review whether the application meets the criteria.

      • I think also at the earlier stages of promotion, there’s more assessment of “promise”, which is highly subjective. For senior promotions, the candidate has had many more years to develop an unarguable track record of accomplishment.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t see why promoting less qualified female candidates in any worse than promoting less qualified male candidates, which definitely happens.

        But it’s worth stressing that, unlike applying for a job, applying for promotion does not involve entering a competition…one’s case is judged against the stated criteria only, not against other applicants.

  6. “The worst thing one can do is promote women who are obviously less qualified than male candidates. ”

    Unquestionably, and I can’t think of any women who want to feel that they had been promoted for any reason other than merit.

    “It is also wrong to be less demanding of women who have been affected, shall we say, by children unless one also asks the male candidates to what degree their careers have suffered because of their children.”

    This statement I think highlights where some of the problems with women giving up earlier in their careers lie. It is an inescapable fact of human biology that women are the ones who have to bear children, and fortunately for the future of the human race there are plenty who want to (the impending pension crisis would look even worse if they gave up wanting to). Pregnancy can be very uncomfortable for some women in lots of different ways. Even if you are not unlucky enough to end up hospitalized for Hyperemesis, being sick for 9 months constantly can be rather draining and likely to affect your productivity at work. That’s just one example, and while fathers might feel anxious as a result of something like this, they are ultimately not physically affected. Even with an uncomplicated birth (and no post-natal depression), new babies are exhausting and there are some things that fathers biologically just cannot do. However much they may want to do their fair share.

    Then you have childcare. Most people no longer have their extended families on their doorsteps, and the requirement to move around in academic careers makes it even more likely that there will be no family support available. Most people, unless they have a partner with a very well paid job, cannot afford to have live in help, so they are constrained by the times that childminders or nurseries operate, which in turn constrains the hours they can work and the amount of travelling they can do. As we all know, networking and collaborations are a vital part of moving up the career ladder in science, so this is an important restriction. While fathers certainly help much more with childcare these days, it is generally still the case that the primary responsibility for organising all this lies with the mother. Young children also get sick constantly, particularly in new childcare environments. Even if you share the responsibility for taking time off work to deal with that, it is generally the mother who ends up doing most of it. I won’t even get into all the school and extra-curricular activities that most mothers end up having to juggle alongside work. In my experience most fathers, even the ones who genuinely try to do their share, are oblivious to these.

    While there certainly are families these days where the father is the primary carer, they are not even a significant minority, and it’s highly unlikely that they ever will be. I don’t think there is any escape from the fact that women are fundamentally more affected by having children than men are. We should acknowledge it.

    As a new postdoc I sat through a careers talk specifically aimed at women PhD students and PDRAs. Someone asked about having children as a postdoc. The response: if you’re prepared to put them in a drawer somewhere until you get a permanent job you could do it I suppose. As a lecturer when I told my then HoD I was pregnant I was asked whether it was an accident. Things are generally not as bad as that now, and some places have some very positive policies, but those attitudes are still out there, and since, as has already been commented above, male partners are likely to be better paid, many women just give up at the point that they decide they want to have children because they don’t perceive it to be worth it. Particularly if they have not succeeded in getting a permanent job and face the prospect of continuing to move around. Much harder with a family.

    Leaving aside the issue of children, Peter makes a good point about fewer women putting themselves forward for promotion in the first place, but it doesn’t only apply to promotion. Women (with some notable exceptions of course) are less likely to view any of their achievements in the same way that men do, or to push themselves forward in the same way. They are less likely to say no to time consuming administrative tasks that will take time away from the research that ultimately is the thing that will get them up the career ladder. It is much easier to pile these sorts of things on to someone who isn’t going to argue, than to have deal with someone who does. In areas outside of academia it is not as common to have to apply for promotion in quite the same way, and managers have a greater role in assessing the contribution that their employees have made. Perhaps a more pro-active approach needs to be taken in annual appraisals in affirming that women have met the standards for promotion and should apply?

  7. Obviously I agree that women do have a larger role close to and after the birth of children, however, the comment…

    “Even if you share the responsibility for taking time off work to deal with that, it is generally the mother who ends up doing most of it. I won’t even get into all the school and extra-curricular activities that most mothers end up having to juggle alongside work. In my experience most fathers, even the ones who genuinely try to do their share, are oblivious to these.”

    …is not a healthy way to think of things whether you are a man or woman. A couple should be able to work out how to share responsibilities which do not disadvantage one person over the other. Just because it “ends up like this” in most cases probably says more about a relationship rather than an issue that should be solved in the work place. Bottom line is that both parents should get treated the same!

    As someone that was in a relationship where my partner earned substantially more than me, I think it’s fair to say that I know who would have stayed at home more, due to the job flexibility that is possible in academia (but not if you are a woman or man running their own business for example).

    On the issue of bias that Brooke raised…

    Bias has existed on some panels that I have sat on. This bias is not restricted to men interviewing women, but happens in all directions, including women interviewing women and men interviewing men.

    I think this comes down to some people feeling more comfortable/enthusiastic when they interview someone with similar traits as themselves. This would obviously have a bigger effect on female interviewees, as generally interview panels in astronomy have more men than women on them due to the imbalance higher up the food chain.

    But in my experience of interviewing people, such a unconscious bias has been highlighted by other members of the panel – both male and female, and it’s a credit to the person from whom the bias was coming that they acknowledged their bias and reassessed their views. Now I know this probably doesn’t happen in every case but I hope it’s an example of how things are changing as the “old guard” are retiring, and both men and women with a more liberal viewpoint are taking up positions of influence – although possibly not as quickly as we all would like.

    Phillip – you say

    “Even if one spends the same amount of money, more permanent and less fixed-term positions would be better, and there is no real reason for people not to get a permanent academic job at 30 instead of 40.”

    I agree and most of the very good/excellent people that I know with permanent positions (whether male or female) did get them at around 30 rather than 40. Or they had long term fellowships from around 30-35 and then had a guaranteed position at the end of it.

    There is a reason that some people don’t have permanent positions at the age of ~40, and it’s rarely (or never in my experience) to do with sex or any other bias against minorities in astronomy.

    Getting a permanent position is not a right for everyone who does a PhD or postdoc – you have to earn the position, and this is generally based on both track record AND potential. Obviously in some cases this results in some appointments that look odd from the outside, particularly if a job is given based almost entirely on perceived potential. I was on the wrong end of this for many job interviewees, and it is only now that I have been on such appointment panels that I can see why some things may have happened how they did. Although it doesn’t stop me from being bemused by some appointments, I have more of a rounded view on the process.

    The other problem with your argument that there should be more permanent and fewer fixed-term positions is that Universities generally pay the salaries of permanent staff whereas as postdocs are funded on grants from a variety of sources. Universities cannot afford to bankroll way more people on permanent contracts – which is a commitment of ~30-40 years. You could appoint all those 30-40 year olds on fixed term contracts but then you wouldn’t be able to appoint anyone else for another 20-30 years!

    The way forward may be to educate people doing PhDs that their chances of getting a permanent job in astronomy are extremely slim.

    Maybe supervisors/line managers should just be more honest about how good they think the student/postdoc is and tell them that leaving astronomy is a good and viable option for them, rather than convey the sentiment that if you leave then you are a failure.

    Keeping in touch with people that have left (and generally not earn way more money than me) certainly gives me a different perspective that I can then convey to the students and postdocs work with me.

    This may also then reduce the number of bolshy-networking men who aren’t that good and open up more doors for the best women at an earlier stage of their career 🙂

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Hold on. A central problem is that talented people are often not able to compete in junior research careers because of hierarchies and biases. And that can affect women disproportionately.

      Grant holders can choose whether to give postdocs the freedom to pursue their own ideas and methods, or to keep them on a tight rein. It is the people most like the grant holders in character who will be regarded as most talented and worthy of being set free to succeed – that means disproportionately males given that a large majority of academics are men. Established academics decide whether to nominate and support postdocs for fellowship applications, and will through bias, mostly unconscious, select the people most like themselves. Established academics decide whether to name individuals on grant applications. Grant holders decide whether to release funding to allow postdocs to travel to conferences.

      The point is that there is a need for support and patronage for researchers to prove their abilities and potential. There are large numbers of occasions in a career when biases – intentional or accidental – can have critical consequences.

      Those comments above are from somebody who succeeded in academia and therefore thinks the system does work at some level. I, as someone who did not succeed and who feels I failed because of lack of opportunity, believe the academic careers system is wholly broken. It is massively over-competitive and does not give talented people the ability to take the actions themselves to advance their careers, at least not unless they have the luck to be given that freedom by established academics. Biases – unconscious or conscious – actively discriminate against women, ethnic minorities, people from traditional “working-class” backgrounds and a whole range of other people.

      I do not know what happens to limit the promotions of women from readerships to chairs, but it is very clear that there is discrimination against women – and against most men – in junior research careers. Reducing hierarchies and giving talented people more control over their own careers would do a lot to introduce diversity into academia.

      • Bryn,

        I agree with most of your points – I also suggested that one of the main problems is that people employ people that resemble themselves – and this isn’t right.

        I also agree that the academic system needs to change, but I also think it is changing – albeit gradually.

        It is over-competitive but so are most job environments at the moment – this isn’t restricted to academia. This is related to my last point that maybe people/line managers/supervisors should be more honest about what they think is a good avenue for people, or at least highlight where they think the strengths of the person are. If these strengths are more suited to particular areas of astronomy/PDRA-work/Fellowship-position/job outside of astronomy then this needs to be conveyed to the person in question in a way that doesn’t suggest that they aren’t good enough. We all have different skills and we need a variety of skills in academia, otherwise we will always fall into the trap that we have all alluded to in that senior people employ people like themselves.

        If we can get this sentiment across to more people then hopefully it would improve the gender/race imbalance in astronomy, as more people would feel valued for the skills they have rather than the ones that they think they should have as that’s what >50 year old men in senior positions have.

        To be honest if I employed someone like myself I think it would be a disaster for the person under me as it’s likely that not much would get finished!


      • Bryn Jones Says:

        However, the academic careers system has some critical features:

        1) Only a small proportion (about 5-8%) of people obtaining PhDs will achieve permanent academic positions. Virtually all others will leave academia, either through choice or career failure.

        2) University departments and research councils are very hierarchical, with junior staff and PhD students often unable themselves to shape their careers, or sometimes to determine their own research success. Career progress and success depend on factors beyond merely the abilities of the junior researchers. These include the opportunities given to them by established academics and the managerial competence of academics.

        3) There is an assumption of a linear career path that all people will follow. This disadvantages people who spend time working on project support or as programmers, and who may consequently have had periods when they did not produce many publications. Time out to have children will selectively affect women. This assumption of a universal career trajectory inevitably produces a strong ageism within the academic career system.

        My view is that these factors, when they operate together, create a career system where luck and patronage are as important as genuine ability. Success usually requires all these in combination. Conversely, prejudices – conscious or unconscious – can cause fatal damage to many careers.

        As an example of biases, I once worked for a grant holder who told me, “I don’t think you’d make a good lecturer: you’re too honest.” He thought academics need to be able to bluff when they are asked searching questions by students. I did become a lecturer (on fixed-term contracts). I think I was seriously good at university teaching, but not because I bluffed, but because I put the effort in to prepare teaching properly. That story is an example of the irrational prejudices many people have to face in academic careers. Women will face their own particular set of unfair biases.

    • “The other problem with your argument that there should be more permanent and fewer fixed-term positions is that Universities generally pay the salaries of permanent staff whereas as postdocs are funded on grants from a variety of sources. Universities cannot afford to bankroll way more people on permanent contracts – which is a commitment of ~30-40 years.”

      This already is happening though – many postdocs are on permanent contracts due to changes in employment law (you cannot use FTC to employ people for more than 4 years), and I think any University dismissing someone because the grant funding the job ran out will possibly be on rather thin legal ground if challenged in court from what I have read, especially if they only consider that employee for redundancy or they hire someone else 6 months later to do a similar research job (once a job is redundant you cannot just hire someone else to do the job until 2 years have passed I believe)….if thats all true then Universities are going to have change funding models to cope with this situation are they not?

      I know of research groups who simply shift postdocs onto a new project when funding for one drys up, which from what I know of friends in industry is how many companies manage employees too. OTOH I know of groups who deliberately won’t employ postdocs for more than 4 years for the sole reason of stopping them getting a permanent contract.

      • “and I think any University dismissing someone because the grant funding the job ran out will possibly be on rather thin legal ground if challenged in court from what I have read,”

        Yes but from personal experience I know this is what happens in some universities (and has been for a number of years). I do not know if it has been challenged yet. The university will actively pursue options for re-employment including automatic interviews for similar appointments.

        In terms of having postdoc positions appear within a 2-year time frame after making a postdoc redundant I know one HR representative explains it by saying the jobs are not the same – breaking right down to nitty-gritty of roles and responsibilities to find different wording. I know some PIs like this as it means they are not forced to work with someone in a group who they might not really want to.

    • Philip: Oh Sh*t. Just catching up on these posts and am feeling ultra guilty. Am now recalling that a colleague forwarded to me 2 emails from you on March 14 (I found them again a few minutes ago) from the Ripples in the Cosmos email address. There you said you were interested in attending the conference but there were institute fields that didnt apply to you. I ACCEPT FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR NOT REPLYING TO YOUR EMAILS. (Unfortunately this probably also identifies me as the one personally responsible for lack of women in Physics, poor career prospects for PhD students, unethical lecturing techniques etc etc!) But as a fully paid up crank myself I dont think what happened to you has anything to do with that particular bias. Indeed when your name was mentioned, I confirmed to unnamed colleague that you were a very worthy attendee with recent refereed papers in MN that I had read etc! But then due to my incompetence I failed to reply to the forwarded emails.

      There is no real case for the defence but if there was it might go like this:

      a) Your email was complicated in that it mainly complained about the fields we had on the registration page webform. Those web pages are run externally for us by university conference organisers subcontracting to the computer dept. It took weeks talking to those folks to get close to what we wanted. Certainly the option of changing fields was not attractive at that point!

      If you want to attend a conference my advice is just fill in whatever is there (we dont run checks on institute etc). Even just fill in the talk proposal page and we would have got back to you eventually to register properly.

      b) March 14 is the last frantic week of term here and right in the middle of various telescope deadlines. WIth about 1000 hrs of teaching last year while trying to keep research going (including a conference) means that it is easy to put off and then accidentally overlook replies to emails. I suppose I thought you might fill in the forms anyway. Maybe everyone in academia being so darned busy is also a good explanation for many of the other problems discussed above too.

      Anyway enough of the excuses. We have signed up 170 participants for Ripples in 10 days time but there is still room for one or two more including yourself. Let me say here that we can waive your registration fee and if you need any help with accommodation or even travel just let me know – directly at

      If you sign up on the talk proposal page then we will see what the SOC say….

      I just hope its not too late that we can still organise your attendance at this conference!

  8. “In practice, it means (at least in some countries) that one cannot spend more than x years at one institute.”

    Even in the UK it varies from University to University (possibly even from group to group within a University) though, so it really depends on the attitude of the research group. Some see the benefit of having good people in place on a long term basis, others see it as a very bad thing to do. The argument often seems to be long term contracts prevent new people with fresh ideas coming in, but in my experience even people on permanent contracts do move on anyway for a variety of reasons (bored of academic research and want a new challenge, better job at other uni, spouse moves area etc etc) so its does not prevent this at all.

  9. Monica Grady Says:

    To go back to the original subject of the post. Just scrolled through all the responses, hoping that someone, somewhere, would have mentioned the Athena Swan Charter ( up to which all institutions are encouraged to sign. Many of the comments on this post are issues that are being considered by institutions who have signed the Charter – which include Sussex, as I’m sure Peter is well aware (or if he isn’t he b****y well ought to be, as Head of School…). The Charter is not about positive discrimination, or anything like that. It is about recognising factors that make gender equality difficult, and trying to remove unnecessary hurdles. Whilst most of the factors apply to all sexes, for historical reasons many of them, especially those centred around roles as carers, have a greater effect on the career of women.

    • telescoper Says:

      Monica, I am aware of the Athena Swan remit. Indeed we shall shortly be following up our institutional bronze award with an application for a departmental award and we’ll be putting a number of new things in place to address specific equality and diversity issues. My hope is that these will not only help in tackling gender bias, but also other forms of discrimination, by making the School a much more inclusive workplace.

  10. Bryn Jones Says:

    No. The Athena Swan Charter is just a lot of nice words that give academic leaders the feeling they are doing something, about as much use as the Concordat on Research Careers. Yes, the Charter would have really positive effects if academic leaders vigorously pursued the principles, but that would require fundamental, transformative reforms of the research careers system. Above all, it would require dramatic changes in research council policies.

    The fundamental problem is that 92-95% of people who embark on PhD research in Britain (and many other Western countries) will not get academic positions. Women (and men) with PhDs are disposable as regards their long-term participation in university research. Consequently, most are expected by established academics to leave academic research. That fosters a culture of career failure within university departments, and one which preferentially affects women. The exceptions will be a selected few who are given active encouragement in their careers, because they happen to impress certain academics or when an established academic sees benefit in supporting somebody with the right skills for their own research.

    The rot introduced by this broken career system corrupts the whole academic careers system. It maintains an under-representation of women in permanent academic positions (women are excluded in a slightly higher proportion than men), which in turn disadvantages the status, participation and promotion of women at more senior levels.

    The Athena Swan Charter is too gentle, too moderate. What is needed is a complete overhaul of the academic careers system, to reduce the mad imbalance between the numbers of PhD students and the number of long-term positions, to free talented people to take control of their careers and to compete on equal terms, and to allow for diversity in people’s careers paths. These reforms apply both to women and men. Without them there will be no equal opportunities for women (or for men either).

  11. Bryn Jones Says:

    Incidentally, I don’t think anybody mentioned the new House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry on Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Careers.

    The deadline for formal written evidence is 3 September 2013.

  12. Franziska Batten-Zaunig Says:

    Dear Prof. Coles, in light of this diskussion I thought you might enjoy this blog-post. The link-description sums it up nicely:

    I know it’s a bit late but reading this reminded me of your post.

    All the best,

  13. […] doesn’t seem very long ago at all that I announced the promotion of its first ever female Professor of Physics in the Department, Prof. Antonella de Santo. In fact it was in July last year. Well, just before the Easter break I […]

  14. […] of Physics at the University of Sussex and I’m glad to say she was promoted to a Chair during my watch as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, at Sussex. That was about four years ago, so it has taken a while to arrange her inaugural […]

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