Physics departments at three Irish universities are engaging with the Juno initiative, which looks to encourage women in physics. Claire O’Connell reports.
A hot potato in STEM education is the persistently low percentage of women in physics. At university level, from undergraduate through to professor, women are in the minority in physics departments in Ireland. But an awards-based scheme called Juno is seeking to build a better balance.
An initiative of the Institute of Physics, Juno looks to recognise and reward departments that are tackling the under-representation of women in university physics, and that are encouraging better practice for both women and men. The scheme gives awards at three levels – Supporter, Practitioner and Champion – depending on how much the department has been able to demonstrate and achieve.
More inclusive working environment
Juno aims to create a more inclusive environment – not just for women but for everyone in physics departments, explains Prof Eithne McCabe, who chairs the Juno committee at Trinity College Dublin.
"Juno is based on five main principles, and the first is getting the organisation right for looking at gender issues," she says. "It focuses on to a large extent on a transparent and inclusive working environment and the idea is that if you make the working environment and the culture better for everyone, then women will benefit perhaps disproportionately."
In January, the School of Physics in Trinity was awarded the status of Juno Practitioner. One of the activities McCabe spearheaded to prepare for it was a census of physics departments in the State's seven universities, which brought some interesting numbers to light.
"Amongst undergrads, the number nationally for females getting degrees in physics was about 22pc, which is extremely low," she says. "The numbers (of women) are low at every stage but fall very significantly by the time you get to academic staff – at Trinity, around 11pc of the permanent academic staff are female, the lowest for all the science subjects."
Prof Eithne McCabe, chairs of the Juno committee at Trinity College Dublin
Another statistic to emerge was that in 2013, Trinity' School of Physics was home to 44pc of all of national post-doctoral researchers (male and female) in the discipline, adds McCabe: "So changes that we make here would have a significant impact on post-docs nationally."
A need for change at post-doc level also came through in the qualitative data from the survey.
"One issue that arose was the issue of integrating our post-docs better into the school and CRANN and AMBER," she says. "So I started a monthly coffee morning that was focused on all staff but primarily at post-docs, get them to come along and interact with staff and get very focused on encouraging female post-docs to come along. That has been very successful, actually getting conversations going amongst post-docs themselves."
"I kicked that off, setting the scene, where we are with Juno and where we were hoping to go and reach the environment we wanted to achieve," she recalls. "Now Shane and Eve are leading that with regular meetings – they invite speakers of interest to the post-docs – and Shane sits on the Juno committee. It's a welcome event for post-docs to have an identity and a voice, and particularly to make sure we have our female post-docs feeling they can have a voice there."
Juno at NUI Galway and UCD
The school of physics at NUI Galway was the first in Ireland to achieve Juno Practitioner status, in July 2013.
"This commitment to gender equality is now embedded in every aspect of the life of the school, including teaching, research and outreach," says NUI Galway lecturer Dr Miriam Byrne, who also notes the importance of considering post-doctoral level researchers. "As we work towards a Juno Champion award we have taken the positive step of establishing a post-doctoral researcher's network in the school, as we recognise that this is a vulnerable employee group throughout academia with few career development opportunities."
The school of physics in University College Dublin (UCD) is also getting on the Juno ladder – it recently became Juno Supporter with the aim of joining NUI Galway and Trinity as Practitioners by the end of 2014, according to lecturer Dr Sheila McBreen.
"We have established a representative committee comprising staff, post-graduate and undergraduate students," she says. "Currently, we are gathering data on all aspects of the school, including the gender breakdown in staff and student numbers, research funding, external examiners, summer interns and many more. We will analyse these data with respect to the Juno principles and incorporate an action plan in our Practitioner proposal."
Links with Athena SWAN
Juno has much in common with the Athena SWAN initiative in the UK, which awards bronze, silver and gold awards to institutions for commitments to advance women's careers in academia. It is possible that the award of one can fast-track the award of the other.
And just this week it was announced that the Athena SWAN charter is to be extended to the Republic of Ireland – autumn 2014 will see the start of a three-year pilot in Ireland, funded by the Higher Education Authority.
Encouraging younger students
As well as tackling university physics, McCabe has also been looking to encourage a more equitable gender balance in the subject at second level.
"I was involved with setting up a transition-year week-long programme called TYPE (Transition Year Physics Experience), and from the beginning I insisted it was 50/50 in terms of gender," she says. "The career opportunities for physics are fantastic, and it really is fitting that female students should be aware of that and taking advantage of that. I would love to see a real change in numbers and I think people assumed that this would happen organically and it didn't happen and I think these kinds of initiatives are at least putting out there that departments like our own are committed to doing something about it, so the next generation will hopefully see stronger numbers and stronger contribution from women in all areas."
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