Women in space: challenge your ideas of who science is for

Dr Emily Brunsden

I was told from a young age I could do what I wanted with my life. My parents and teachers were wonderfully supportive and keen to point me in the direction of all sorts of opportunities.

Still it bugged me as a young teenager when I would get asked again and again what I wanted to do when I grew up. One day, in frustration, I blurted out that I wanted to go study rocks on the Moon. I switched from biology to physics the day before fifth form started and I never looked back.

I didn't quite end up in astrogeology, but I didn't stray far. I studied variable stars as an undergraduate and, after getting a degree in astronomy and a teaching diploma, found myself completing a PhD in asteroseismology. I study pulsations in stars with the goal of using the variations on the surface to determine information about their interior structure. I use data from telescopes all around the world and in space – it’s exciting stuff!

Astrophysics, like most STEM subjects, is male dominated. Undergraduate cohorts have only around 20% female students in physics and the number is similar in astrophysics. Females completing postgraduate qualifications such as PhDs drop again to somewhere between 10% and 15%. 

So what is it like being a female astrophysicist?

Let's be honest first. Will you be discriminated against? Probably. You may or may-not be aware of it all the time but it is inevitable. Unconscious bias is often responsible and it is the worst kind of bias to combat because it isn't done with intent. Many people don't want to discriminate, but a natural outcome of society is people are drawn to those who fit the social model. Women have been shown to be as unconsciously-biased against other women as men in physics.

I thought as a school student, undergraduate, and even during my PhD that I just had to work harder because I wasn't naturally talented in the subject like my male peers. Looking back now I can see that wasn't actually the case. Where did I even get that idea from? Culture and society probably. You might also question if your gender was a factor in you getting your place at university, your internship, your PhD or your job. Some people may even tell you it was to your face. But again, that simply isn’t true. Your achievements are your own and the truth is you get where you do through your own talent and hard work, sometimes despite your gender.

What can you do if you are a woman thinking of pursuing physics, astrophysics or other male-dominated subjects?

My advice is to find role models, develop support networks, push yourself forward and ignore the voices that say you aren't good enough. We all need to keep challenging our own bias and actively seek out diversity. Follow campaigns such as #ilooklikeaphysicist, #womeninSTEM or #womeninscience. They aim to make the image of female scientists 'normal' and pull out our unconscious bias by its roots.

You might not be able to do whatever you want with your life, but you can follow your passion, talent and your drive. Find things that make you happy and draw on them when you need to. Most of all challenge your ideas of who science is for and give it a go.

About the author

Dr Emily Brunsden is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Physics at the University of York. She is director of Astrocampus—a teaching and outreach observatory on the University of York campus, and specialises in Astrophysics. 

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