June 10, 2023

The Face of Physics – Part 2

This is part 2 of a series of articles in which Genevieve Bent explores the experiences of some BME and/or female Physicists (and Physics students) in the UK and #ChatPhysics. You can read part 1 here

As discussed in my last article, Physics continues to be a science which maintains extremely low diversity, in terms of race and gender. 

The Institute of Physics carries out data collection across the UK, in order to gain a bigger picture of what the diversity landscape looks like in UK Physics.

In my previous article, I mentioned the Bursary scheme that the IOP launched in 2019, designed to encourage women into Physics study and research. The IOP makes it clear on its website that they are committed to increasing diversity in Physics, both over the next few years and as a long term goal. They intend to promote diversity across several key groups and have pledged funding, support and other. 

They state one of its three aims in its 2020-24 strategy as Diversity and skills.1

We want to build a thriving, diverse physics community and play our part in solving the STEM skills shortage by ensuring that people, no matter their background or where they live, have access to world-class physics education and training.’

‘Unlocking the Future’ Strategy 2020 – 24. Institute of Physics. 2020

These sentiments are echoed throughout other institutions, particularly HE, but in 2020, why is this still an issue? Why are the numbers of women and black people in Physics so low?

As part of my research for writing these articles, I spoke to several Physicists, studying or otherwise, who tried their best to describe their own experiences in the field. 

Cheyenne, an astrophysicist MA student, who came from the Caribbean to the UK to study Astrophysics, describes her journey through Physics to this point, as not knowing what she was missing until she came across another black woman.

“I always just accepted that it was one of those fields that is majority white AND male. When I experienced the excitement of being able to speak to someone about Physics & specific ethnicity struggles in the same conversation, that’s when I realised. Representation of different ethnicities gives that sense of belonging that everyone needs to be their best self and believe in their potential.”

This summarises one the main issue posed by (lack of) representation in Physics – its outward appearance of White and Male can be intimidating (at least) and a deterrent (at most). 

Personally, I am a big believer of role models; the power of role models I do not believe can be quantified but it most definitely can be attested to. As a (fairly) young black teacher, I had my own role Model at school, my Head of Year: black, young, and female. Though I did not have an early ‘call’ to teaching, ever since becoming a teacher, she is one of only three teachers that I remember and fondly. I started YGASTEM as I wanted to provide the young people in compulsory education with people and careers to aspire to, that were like them – background, ethnicity, experiences. 

Young black & ME students, and young girls should have more role models in Physics to inspire and motivate them. 

In 19862, a published journal concluded a study that ‘female scientists as role models in the classroom has a very positive impact on the attitudes of students with regards to women in science’. In 2019, the University World news published an online article which stated ‘the same seems likely to be true for black people.’3

Where do you stand on the importance of role models for young people and more importantly in Physics?

Leave your comments below. 

1. ‘Unlocking the Future’ Strategy 2020 – 24. Institute of Physics. 2020

2. Want black women students to stay in STEM? Help them find role models who look like them? Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis School of Science. April 2019. 

3. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20181010085129146

Head of Science at a South London secondary school with a Chemistry specialism, but also an enthusiasm for teaching Physics. Founder of Young Gifted and STEM, an initiative aimed at increasing engagement of young BME students with STEM study. Genevieve's website is http://www.younggiftedandstem.co.uk and tweets @vievewright and @ygastem

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