3 Women-in-Science


One of the most egregious omissions at the Nobel prize was the award to Watson and Crick, overlooking Rosa Franklin, as not entitled because she was dead.  Also deemed ineligible was a female student who discovered Pulsars, her professors were awarded the Nobel.
Our women in Science, are Dr. Maggie Aderin Pocock, Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield and the discover of Pulsars, whose tutors accepted her Nobel.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

“I have certainly done extremely well out of not getting the Nobel.  The Nobel happened at the time when feminism was growing up.  So I’ve been carried on a wave of feminism and a wave of sympathy.  I’ve got every other prize that’s moved since, so I’ve not done badly.”

I first realized women were treated differently at 18 months!  I was the eldest child, my brother was born

Discoverer of Pulsars

photo University of Bath
Astrophysicist and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

18 months after me.  My parents were very even handed, but there were comments from others, “It’s so wonderful that Mrs. Bell’s had a son.”  It was a typical mindset in Northern Ireland at that time. Just one of the facts of life.

There are some horrible statistics surrounding the women who do Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees in Scotland.  Of those women, nearly ¾ leave the field compared to less than half the men.  At the same time the ICT, Energy and Green industries are all saying, “Look, we’re heading up for an enormous skill shortage in the very near future.”  So the country can’t afford that wastage, to lose a large chunk of its talent.  Somehow they need to keep those women, who leave soon after graduation.

There have been all sorts of initiatives, many, many initiatives.  They have usually been started by women almost out of necessity. They don’t always last.  Usually because the key woman moves on or something, and the initiatives are limited and isolated, not linked to other ones.  One of the things we’re keen to see in Scotland, in this Strategy for Women in Science, is that initiatives are joined up and that there is a Government Level Strategy, so that they reinforce each other and can be assessed to see what works and what doesn’t.

One of the very interesting things to study is the proportion of women astronomers when looking around the world.  It varies significantly.  The English speaking countries all cluster below the world average.  The country that tops the table is Argentina, 37% of its astronomers are female, and at the bottom is Japan at 6%.  It’s fascinating as to why there is this range.  There is no one reason, different cultures have different aspects on what’s appropriate for women to do.

Interestingly the NHS, because it’s now dominated by women, has developed a lot of part time working, flexible working and job share.  That’s an entirely respectable way of working.   Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) have yet to do that.  They’re saying, “We can’t do it”, but they probably said that in the NHS at one point.

It would’ve been nice to have had a role model or a mentor.  I have had neither and it’s been lonely at times.  It helps if you know what you want to do; if you’re swithering a bit you can be put off by obstacles.  However, to some extent obstacles help to sort your priority.

I didn’t have any role models when I was a younger woman.  I don’t think in that way.   Although I do observe other women from my generation, particularly in my area of science, to see how they have or haven’t coped.  Most of us have had it tough.

Most of the way, I’ve opened the doors myself.  Well, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have determination and know who I was.  Because there were so few women in my field, I have been the only woman most of my life, or at least the most senior woman in a place.

Recently, for a year and a half, I’ve been leading an inquiry about women in Science Technology and Mathematics in Scotland, for The Royal Society of Edinburgh.  The statistics are probably much the same for the rest of the UK.  The interesting thing about Scotland is this fairly coherent unit has links with Government, so there is some possibility of Scottish Government accepting the need for a strategic plan to improve the number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
The next big job is getting out this report on women in STEM.

Very often the media highlights women in the wrong way.  L’Oreal have been funding women in Science for some of their prizes for a number of years.  At school level, the Institute of Physics is providing quite a lot of support for schools, with all sorts of resource material for Teachers.  A strong component of that is about women.  Institute of Physics has had a very successful Programme; if I can remember the statistics, the number of kids doing A.S. level in their partner schools has increased by 43%, and the number of girls has gone up 119% for Physics.  Now, that’s in the schools they reach, their partner schools.  Lots of schools they don’t reach, because they’re too stretched to even bother to join, but it can be done.


I think women are still a bit risk-averse, so my biggest message is to give it a go!  It’s well worth doing, and they will probably surprise themselves.   It’s huge fun being a Scientist.  It’s very interesting, very rewarding, and exciting at times.


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