In honour of International Women's Day on 8th March, second-year physicist Elena reflects on her path to science and progress towards gender equality in academia.
In life, there is nothing to fear, only to understand.— Margherita Hack
Growing up, I had many strong female role models. The people who first sparked my interest in the stars were my grandmother and her sister, they would tell me these wonderful stories about the sky and its occupants. At 10, I was gifted a book by Margherita Hack, the renowned Italian astrophysicist. My middle school and high school teachers for Physics and Mathematics were women. At every stage of my life the choice to study physics and the passion behind it seemed to be obvious, and I never once had a worry about gender bias; I didn’t realise that this wasn’t the case everywhere.
After moving to the UK and beginning my studies, I quickly came the realisation that not many people around me were women. I noticed that academia as a whole was largely composed of men.
But it goes further than representation, or aspirational role models. I feel like I have to work harder than the boys on my course just to prove myself as smart, and capable of studying physics. This seems engrained in our culture, dyed in the wool. I'd be surprised if a single woman reading this couldn't relate.
Whilst this may have been disheartening at first, I believe that the academic world is catching up to society in 2021, and a state of balance prevails. And though there is still progress to be made, lecturers and staff offer encouragement, and there are more and more female research students. At undergraduate level, my course has a relatively high ratio of women, and this is a change built on a change that will, itself, be built on with change. The seeds for the next generation of the scientific community are us, and we can look forward to learning from the lessons of the past to plot the future.
When I look at my experiences, my journey, my role models and those around me, it does paint an uneven picture. But, rather than dismay, this imbalance has in fact strengthened my wish of becoming an academic myself and pushing open-mindedness as we push the spectrum of human knowledge: science is about understanding, coming together to reckon with the world – and universe – around us. And the more types of people that come together in such a way, the more interesting that understanding and process becomes.
To anyone who is unsure whether the world of physics is for them: science is for everyone, it is not exclusive to any particular type of person, and it most certainly needs input from different points of view.