To pursue a career in science and engineering one needs to have the ability to think analytically. Physics plays a prominent role in the future progress and survival of humanity. All educational institutions should thus promote physics as a subject with fervor and commit the necessary resources to create the infrastructure where students will be able to explore and satisfy their quest for scientific knowledge and solutions to everyday challenges. Why is this profession important? Physics generates fundamental knowledge needed for the future technological advances that will continue to drive the economic engines of the world.
Physics contributes to the technological infrastructure and provides trained personnel needed to take advantage of scientific advances and discoveries and many other benefits.
I interviewed Rachel Youngman, the deputy chief executive of the Institute of Physics (IoP) located in London to discuss the challenges women face to study physics, the myths behind this profession and how we can address that problem.
Rachel, you are a nonscientist in a leadership role at a science organization, tell us a little bit about your background and how did you become the deputy chief executive of the Institute of Physics (IoP).
I started my career in the legal profession working for an international NGO concerned with commercial law and human rights. I’ve held the position of CEO in social justice organizations and have also consulted for several UK Government departments.
I became deputy chief executive of the organization after spending two years as interim Chief Operating Officer. Although I’m not from a physics background, the Institute of Physics (IOP) has been a great fit for my expertise. I have been able to use my understanding of professional member bodies, and to tackle underrepresentation in physics. I was confident my background in social justice would help this, because in any industry, to tackle a diversity problem you must understand the social as well as professional barriers.
“It’s the working environment that needs to change. We need leaders in STEM to understand the value of diversity and find ways to address it”
What services does the IoP provide and who are they addressed?
We are the professional body and learned society for physicists in the UK and Ireland. The IOP’s role is to ensure the good health of the discipline. We do this in a number of different ways. Through our programmes and in our support of our members. We have 23,000 members from across the physics community - in industry, academia, teaching, national labs, and students. We work with a range of partners to support and develop the teaching of physics in schools; address skills shortages; and provide evidence-based advice to governments in the UK and in Ireland. We are also a world-leading science publisher with journals around the world.
What activities or programs are you doing in the IoP?
There are two projects I am leading on which address important issues. The first is IOP’s first campaign. Limit Less aims to increase the number of young people pursuing an education in physics, particularly girls and those from black and minority ethnic and lower socio-economic backgrounds. One of the barriers to studying physics is the outdated stereotype of an Einstein type wearing a lab coat! So as part of the campaign we are working with parents, carers, teachers, youth leaders, local employers and careers officers to explain the true range of careers that physics can lead to, and to challenge the myth that you need to be highly academic to study it.
We are working with organisations responsible for STEM outreach and making sure their activities are effective in reaching families from underrepresented groups. For example, we would like to see museums and science center’s making sure that there are physics-themed activities that are inclusive and accessible to underrepresented groups.
The second project is a feasibility study on how the UK can support capacity and access to facilities in Africa to increase research programs on climate, weather management systems and energy. We carried this out in conjunction with the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and with experts in Africa and the UK after it emerged from research in 2019 that Africa is seriously behind the rest of the world in physics research.
The purpose of the study was to identify the barriers. The study was just released in September 2021, and it identified five key areas that need addressing: training and education, gender inclusivity, academic and staff capacity, innovation and commercialization, collaboration, and networks. Africa has huge potential to contribute to climate change solutions. This study showed clearly that improved capacity would have an enormous impact and would strengthen Africa’s contribution to the UN’s sustainability goals.
“We are working with organizations responsible for STEM outreach and making sure their activities are effective in reaching families from underrepresented groups”
What are the results you have gotten with these programs?
In the first lockdown of 2020, when schools closed, the Limit Less Campaign produced a series of short films and resources to help parents and carers get children excited about science at home. (Follow-up research showed that 54% of pupils who watched the videos said they wouldn’t have done any science experiments during home schooling if it weren’t for the video series.)
The campaign also sent out ‘winter activity packs’ based on the tasks in the videos to primary schools to 1,500 children identified as at risk of digital exclusion and to families on social housing estates. The films ended up featuring at the Bradford Science Festival, Lambeth Country Show, Big Bounce Festival (Glasgow) and Caledonian Road Festival – so we know that our physics learning tools reached a really diverse range of students.
In another success, The IoP approached Youtube to ask why its science videos don’t feature higher in its recommended videos (which could be a barrier to young people getting interested in physics). We continue to focus on the changes needed to algorithms, but in the meantime, YouTube did invite the IoP to curate a science playlist in its learning section. And so, all 14 episodes of our series mentioned above now feature on the YouTube Kids app.
For the Africa feasibility study, this has only just been released so we are yet to see the impact. The study was commissioned by the UK Governments’ Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, and we are currently discussing further support.
Why is it so important to have diversity specifically in the STEM industries?
Diverse backgrounds in any team, no matter what the industry, gives us diversity of thought. When addressing a problem as complex and widespread as climate change it’s essential to have a broad range of experiences and perspectives. For example, cultural experiences, educational backgrounds, and first-hand experiences of climate damage will all influence how scientists tackle a problem and with how much urgency. It won’t be beneficial if everyone studying climate solutions is from a privately educated background, for example.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM? What would you suggest fixing this?
Underrepresentation means that women are often in the minority in a STEM working environment, which poses a challenge to them before they even start their career. There is concern that the pandemic has widened this inequality even further.
The underlying reason that this underrepresentation exists is that women, more than their male counterparts, still pick up the lion's share of caring responsibilities, have career breaks and then reenter the workplace which is no longer a level playing field. We shouldn’t be saying to women that they’re the problem and that they need to change. It’s the working environment that needs to change. We need leaders in STEM to understand the value of diversity and find ways to address it. There are some great leaders across STEM who are trying hard to fix the problems. It's the responsibility of organisations to fix it, and that’s what I’m trying to do at the IOP for women in physics.
“The mythical image that persists in the media is the older white man, who looks something like Einstein - which is incredibly far removed from the truth. We know from our own research that this imagery puts off young people from going into physics”
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in Physics?
One of the challenges women faces is that stereotypes often tell them that physics is not for them. Some of the comments they face can be harsh. Recently we were told that the girls in a physics class were openly referred to as “team fake tan”. One of the aims of our Limit Less campaign is to address the stereotyping of what a physicist looks like. The mythical image that persists in the media is the older white man, who looks something like Einstein - which is incredibly far removed from the truth. We know from our own research that this imagery puts off young people from going into physics. This also ties into the myth that physics is hard and only for geniuses, which is also far from the truth. Working hard and some aptitude perhaps, but not the Einstein genius image.
Is the reach of the Institute of Physics just in the UK?
Our programs extend beyond the UK and Ireland. The UK-Africa work is one example. Recently we also worked with the Canadian physics community in support of the UK and Canada Quantum collaboration. We also maintain excellent relationships with physics societies around the world and meet regularly to discuss areas of common concern and opportunity particularly where they are of global concern such as the impact of the pandemic and climate.