“Well behaved women seldom make history” – Jess Wade reports back on #ICWIP2017

Most of the delegates to ICWIP2017 in Birmingham, photo by Liz Hingley

The International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWIP) is a triennial meeting that looks to “understand the severe under-representation of women worldwide and to develop strategies to increase their participation in physics”. The first was held in Paris in 2002 and 2017 marked its first return to Europe (while we’re still in Europe, I’m going to refer to the UK as Europe as much as possible). The four-day event featured distinguished speakers from across the world, several workshops and plenty of networking opportunities. At the end of the conference, a series of resolutions are drafted and presented to the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP). The conference is attended by teams of physicists from countries across the world, with travel grants created to help scientists attend from developing nations. The UK team comprised of over 50 physicists working in the UK: teachers, industry experts, postgraduates, researchers and professors. We even had a social scientist.

I had no idea what to expect – I get sad when I hear miserable statistics and I’m not one for sitting around talking around problems rather than trying to solve them. But this wasn’t anything like that. It was a celebration of the diversity within science, a symphony of international ideas and understanding. We may have been uniting to talk about a ‘lack of women in physics’, but none of these women in physics were lacking… and they were all proactively trying to make academic research a more even playing field for everyone. These are women from countries where terrorism and corruption are everyday challenges, and if they can still balance their research and women in science advocacy work… so can I. I left with a spring in my step- we can do better to make physics more inclusive…and there is an awful lot of kick-ass people trying to do the same.

I caught up with a few delegates to ask them what they thought:   

Anuradha Damale, Durham Physics Graduate, and PG Science and Technology Student at Sussex University: If you had told me I’d leave ICWiP 2017 having made friends, and having learnt from and laughed with some of the greatest minds from around the world, I would have laughed in your face. Having just graduated from my first degree, I was understandably nervous to walk into a conference full of incredibly talented and qualified women from around the world. Within hours, however, I had already learnt so much about the diverse backgrounds and disciplines that all the women at this conference had come from, and was left inspired by the end of the first day! What followed was a week of being led through the world of Women in Physics from around the world, by some of the most experienced, accomplished, and lauded female physicists from around the world I can say for certain that I left ICWiP more motivated and committed than I could ever have been to pursue my career in science policy, with a far greater network than I could have imagined.

Lucy Whalley, postgraduate, Imperial College London: Doing a PhD is demanding; and sometimes we can get so caught up with learning a new technique or analysing our results that we forget to zoom out and think of the bigger picture: What do we want our science community to look like in the future? How can we ensure this community is the best it can possibly be? ICWIP is very different from other conferences I have attended. This is summarised in a sentence from the opening speech: “we welcome you, as you are”. An atmosphere was created where women and men could discuss issues around the under-representation of women – many of which are personal (related to e.g. family circumstances and hopes for the future) and/or emotive (related to e.g. abuse). There were also several scientists in the audience, who had the stats and case-studies required for an evidence-based approach.

We even received a surprise visit from Nobel-peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai. I ended the conference with fire in my stomach to work with those I’d met, make change, increase diversity in all its forms and make our scientific community the best it possibly can be.

Rosie Johnson, postgraduate, University of Leicester: The week before I attended ICWIP I happened to read a paper on the double jeopardy facing women of colour in the field of astronomy and planetary science, published in JGR: Planets. In a survey undertaken in the USA this paper found that 40% of women of colour felt unsafe in the work place due to gender and 28% felt unsafe due to race. After reading this paper, I knew I wanted to attend the gender studies and intersectionality workshop. The workshop was interesting and eye opening: many people, myself included, were only beginning to learn what intersectionality means. A social scientist guided the discussion and it was fascinating to learn how issues such as gender, race, disability, mental health, LGBT+ interplay in different countries. After attending his conference, I feel that when moving forward with gender equality it will be important that intersectionality is considered so the most marginalised groups are not ignored.

Sarah Kaiser, Post-Doctoral researcher at Macquarie University, Sydney: Many of the conference participants are active members in our institutions, trying to influence policy and programs. Changes in institutional policy can be some of the most immediate ways to initiate improvement in workplace culture. From things like tenure clock considerations for having children, unconscious bias training, or codes of conduct; it was exciting to hear from all the different countries what approaches were being taken, what results they were finding. However, like many things, one set of policies and programs will not work for every situation. What was well illuminated by this conference was how support and policies from international organizations should be structured to better help scientists in the developing world. Hopefully our discussions and drafted documents will help governing bodies like IUPAP forge a future where all scientists are welcome. I know for sure I have a lot of new discussion points with our department diversity committee when I get back 🙂

Rebecca Dewey, Research Fellow, University of Nottingham: I was blown away by the number of people who have dedicated time and effort to the cause. We each have our own strengths, our own angle on it, but the message still comes through: every individual should be entitled to study the things they enjoy, use the skills they are good at / enjoy using, and get that same job satisfaction in return that we all feel privileged to receive. No characteristic should hold you back and no prejudice should prevent you from being taken seriously.

You may also be interested in the French team’s Charter for Gender Fairness at Conferences: https://www.sfpnet.fr/uploads/tinymce/PDF/Gender%20Fairness_6juin2017.pdf   

If you’re interested to read more about the conference, do check out Physics World reporter Sarah Tesh’s blog about the event: http://blog.physicsworld.com/2017/07/21/one-woman-can-change-a-lot-if-she-is-determined/

Catch up on the tweets: #ICWIP2017

Guest post by Dr Jess Wade of Imperial College, currently VERY EXCITED at #scifoo in California