Archive for Tara Shears

Slow Progress for Female Physics Professors

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 1, 2013 by telescoper

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.