Some say gender equality in physics can only be reached long after ITER and DEMO have come to life. You might debate the question of whether a gender balance should be mandatory for natural sciences; nevertheless, women still suffer a pay gap. Moreover, willing female researchers may get lost along their career path. The approach by the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) now officially tries to remove discriminating obstacles within their organisation. A problem that not only Britain must tackle. Prof Sibylle Günter from the German Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP ) was just honoured with a prize for being a role model for women in physics.

Girl power on the wall

Sibylle Günter

Sibylle Günter Picture: IPP

“It feels good to hear that I encourage young women in science”, says Prof Sibylle Günter. The current Director of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma
Physics sips tea at the wooden table in her office. She is just winding down from a busy working week. Last Wednesday all eyes within the fusion world were on her as the world’s biggest stellarator Wendelstein 7-X was inaugurated with the assistance of no other than the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. Günter is rather touched when she speaks about an email she received the following day. “One female colleague wrote to me explaining that she has put the picture of Merkel and me on her wall and named it ‘Girl power!’”. Günter can be called a ‘certified’ role model. At the beginning of this year, the European Physical Society honoured her with the Emmy Noether Prize for her “solid scientific record, many leadership roles and mentoring of researchers and students”.

Role models to attract attention

The Emmy Noether Distinction for Women in Physics identifies role models able to attract women to enter into a career in physics. It addresses the fact that women are underrepresented in what is called the STEMM careers. STEMM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and Medicine. Studies have revealed that factors such as encouragement from parents, interactions with maths and science teachers, curriculum content, hands-on laboratory experiences, high school achievement in maths and science, as well as resources available at home, play an important role when it comes to raising interest among young girls.

20% of EUROfusion workers are women

Following on from the latest survey carried out by EUROfusion, which collected data from 25 of the 29 members, merely 20% of fusion personnel are women. Men outnumber women in EUROfusion when it comes to engineers, physicists or technicians. A higher proportional of women hold administration or legal roles. The EUROfusion ad-hoc group which conducted the survey of human resources compared the numbers from 2004 with newer numbers from 2014. Twelve years ago, the proportion of female professionals was only around 12%. This has improved but is still barely above 18%. In general, the survey revealed that southern European countries do better in terms of gender balance in fusion research than northern European ones.

Ten percent in STEM roles at CCFE

CCFE_chartEUROfusion’s member CCFE in England can prove thelack of female participation. The workforce on site comprises approximately 620 employees and 500 contractors. In addition, Culham sees around 400 European scientists visiting each year to conduct research, primarily on the Joint European Torus (JET), and many from outside Europe. According to figures from 2014, 530 of the employees hold in STEM (Medicine is not provided) roles, of which 190 are scientists and 340 are in engineering or technical positions. But the overall percentage of women in STEM roles at CCFE is only 10%. Taking the technical positions into account, women on site make 14.2%.

Lost on the way

But even if a female student proceeds along her way and starts a STEM career, the path might turn into a ‘leaky pipeline’, as Dr Joanne C. Flanagan would call it. Many women get ‘lost’ on their way from a PhD student to a post-graduate or even professorship.“ It depends on the culture of every organisation but common barriers are, for instance, missing role models. Also, young women lack mentoring. If they want to progress in their career they need guidance”, says Flanagan decisively.

Joanne Flanagan Picture: © Copyright protected by United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority

Joanne Flanagan Picture: © Copyright protected by United
Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority

Mind the gap

Flanagan is not going to take this anymore, at least not at CCFE. The mother of two is a member of CCFE’s self-assessment team which has one aim: To adopt the principles of the Athena Swan charter. Athena Swan is the British industry standard for equal gender representation in the workplace. It addresses, for example, issues like the lack of gender equality in STEMM especially along the career stages, the gender pay gap, short term contracts for the retention and progression of staff and missing active commitment from seniors.

From Bronze to Silver

The first step for Flanagan and the Athena Swan self-assessment team was to perform a gender equality ‘audit’ to identify problem areas and outline an action plan for change. A smaller work unit in the team is responsible for comprehensive data analysis. By collecting statistics of recruitment and career progression, the Athena Swan task force is able to understand how CCFE’s policies, procedures and culture impact gender balance.
Flanagan and her team must have done well since 2013. In October last year, the British fusion research site achieved the Athena Swan Bronze award. “This was a way of pushing ourselves to create a better environment for everyone to work in and it should result in recruiting and retaining more women. We now need to maintain focus, fulfill our commitments, and move towards our next goal: a Silver award,” states Flanagan, while not missing a beat.

On paternal leave

“From my experience, I can tell that there is a problem. We are trying to support young families within our institute”, says IPP Director Günter when it comes to difficulties for women especially after their maternity leave. When Günter had her daughter 26 years ago, she continued doing research and met her mentor at night. “Sure,I was lucky to have a boss who was this understanding”, she confirms. “Nowadays the legal frame encourages dads also to take responsibility”, she proposes.

Prosper from diversity

Consequently, she welcomes every male researcher who asks to take paternal leave. This year, the IPP has seven dads on parental leave or parental part-time. Günter sums up her motivation to make it easier for women to return into the lab after the maternal leave: “Women do not approach physics any differently to men. But I think that a team built of male and female scientists will definitely prosper from its diversity.”