Project Juno: Trudy Coe and Women in Physics (interview)

Gaia Donati talks to Trudy Coe, Project Juno Officer – Department of Physics, University of Oxford, 26th January 2011.

I am very grateful to Carrie Leonard-McIntyre for putting me in touch with Trudy Coe, who is currently working for the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford and whom I fondly thank for having accepted to be interviewed about her work.

I meet Trudy at the Clarendon Laboratory.

Gaia Donati: What is Project Juno?

Trudy Coe: Project Juno is an initiative sponsored by the Institute Of Physics (IOP), and it is thus restricted to the UK. This is a relevant point to make, in that the proportions of women in science and in physics do vary across the EU. That said, Project Juno has got two aims: its overarching goal is to address the under-representation of women in physics in the UK, but at the same time it aims to make physics departments a better place to work for everyone. In fact, the way we have been interpreting it here at the University of Oxford is almost the other way round; we have claimed that we want to make physics a better place for everyone to work in: if we achieve this, we will have addressed the first issue as well. And quite often it is a matter of putting small things in place that do not disadvantage men in any way, but that either individually or taken together, have a beneficial effect on women. A good example of this is mentoring: if you have a mentoring scheme in place it does not disadvantage men, but all the evidence is that women are more likely to take up mentoring and to benefit from it.

GD: What about your role in Project Juno? You told me earlier that you do not have a background in physics.

TC: I have worked in management and leadership development for the university for about eight years, and this meant collaborating with people who manage or lead other people, and looking at issues such as mentoring or support for staff – which is why I was interested in this role within Project Juno. Previously I had had the opportunity to gain extensive experience by working with the Royal Society of Chemistry and looking at the barriers to women in individual chemistry departments in the UK.

GD: Once you became Project Juno Officer, who did you collaborate with, who provided you with useful insights into the department?

TC: I am advised by a working group of representatives of academic and research staff – we will be looking for a graduate student and undergraduate student representative as well – together with representatives from the engineering and technical staff for formal advice. One of the first things I did when I took up the role was to go around each of the sub-departments to try and understand the differences in culture between the various sub-departments, and to look at whether these might affect the proportions of women. I am very conscious that I do not have a background in physics – but I have talked to many people in physics. And in a way, I would say that what matters is not the physics in the sense of the science… The issue we are addressing with Project Juno is more related to understanding the culture around it. Even historically, there are subjects within physics which have traditionally attracted more women… A good example is astrophysics.

GD: The different distribution of women according to the specific area of research is quite conspicuous. Going back to the Project and its requirements, what does it imply in terms of data collection and analysis?

TC: There are two stages to Project Juno. The first is called “Practitioner Status” – this is what we are currently aiming at. Being a “Practitioner” requires three steps: the first one deals with monitoring every stage of what the IOP calls “the pipeline” – i.e. the proportion of women at each stage from undergraduate student through to Professor. This means collecting data from the undergraduate level through the graduate student level and through research staff, lecturers, and professors, then looking at the proportion of women at each stage at Oxford. This data is then compared with figures from other physics departments in the UK and with data from other science departments at Oxford. This step has taken a fair amount of time, as data is not readily available and there hasn’t really been a culture of collecting it at the University. I should add that the IOP is also interested in historic data; for example, where a lecturer post has been advertised, how many female applicants were there, how many female applicants were shortlisted, and how many appointments have been made?

GD: So this first part of the process implied the collection of comparative data.

TC: Yes. Then the IOP wants each department to show a process of reflection on this data. And what the data seems to be telling us here at Oxford is that we are recruiting slightly below the national average in terms of female students, both undergraduate and graduate. As for research staff, we are above the national average, while for staff in general – although the numbers are obviously quite small – we are in line with the UK average. So it is quite a mixed picture.

GD: Why do you think Oxford is below the national average when it comes to female students, both undergraduate and graduate?

TC: At the moment, we do not know the reason, and it is one of the big aspects we want to explore. At this point, it is worth saying that physics is different to most other sciences in that the big drop-off in physics in terms of female representation is – thinking of the UK system – from GCSE to A level. We have pretty much equal proportions of boys and girls taking physics exams at sixteen; but when they take their A-levels, at seventeen or eighteen, only one in five students in the UK is female. This is different to other subjects: for example, in chemistry there is now an equal number of male and female students at both A level and undergraduate level. The drop-off in chemistry occurs once women have done academic chemistry. A remarkable statistic: if women choose to study physics for A level, they appear to be really committed and they tend to stay on. Having said that, we still recruit slightly less undergraduates than the average. One possible factor seems to be the physics aptitude test – this is a compulsory test for every student who applies to Oxford, which seems to screen out slightly more females than males – aspect we need to investigate. Crucially, we know it is not Oxford per se, because in other science departments we have equal numbers of undergraduate students; but there does seem to be something about the combination of physics and Oxford.

Similarly, at the moment we do not understand why we are getting fewer female graduate applicants and fewer female graduate students.

GD: You said that data collection was difficult because of a lack of such a culture. Do you think that in the past the issue of female under-representation was not adequately addressed, not even in gathering information to monitor trends and figures?

TC: No, some work has been done: the University of Oxford and the Department of Physics have been very good at looking at academic attainment. Interestingly, when it comes to final honours there is little difference between female and male students. The problem is that work so far has not gone beyond that, to understand the structure and patterns of applications, to address questions such as why people choose to come to Oxford, and most importantly, why some women choose not to apply to Oxford at all.

GD: Thinking of what happens at the school level, would it be advisable to put measures in place to address the issue at that early stage?

TC: This is a tricky point. It would have to be an initiative at the national level. We need to do some qualitative work: talk to current students, to potential applicants, as well as to those who did not apply. It may turn out that sometimes there is a perceptual barrier more than a concrete one.

Another thing I have been doing is this kind of qualitative study; I designed a survey which went out to all staff, including post-doctoral researchers, asking about levels of awareness – for instance, were they aware of promotion opportunities? – and about personal experience. I now need to analyse the responses to see the differences, and if there are discrepancies between male and female staff, and/or between research staff and permanent academic staff.

Finally, for the submission, we were asked to come up with a list of action points grounded in the evidence. By the end of March, we will hopefully have moved on to the “Practitioner” stage.

GD: You seem to think that qualitative work is in this case more significant than statistical data.

TC: A statistical overview is useful for understanding the issues specific to Oxford, but next we must go deeper. It is a work in progress: it is about constantly monitoring the trends, and trying to make very small steps to change the culture; for instance, one of the initiatives we came up with is to make images of prominent female physicists more visible within the Department.

A final point about what has changed. The past approach could more often than not be summarised as “Let’s help women, let’s fix women”  [i.e. let’s adapt women to the workplace, and not the workplace to women – ed.] – but this can indeed contribute to the problem. There needs to be an atmosphere where everyone is supported, and this is the perspective we wish to work from.

Find out more about Project Juno on the Institute of Physics website:

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