Just as for every other career path, having access to mentors is key for early-career researchers in physics. Compared to 20 years ago, more women embark upon a research career today. Still, they are less likely to continue a career in academia. A way that has proved successful in stemming the drop-off is for female researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to meet successful role models at various stages of their careers. However, in physics – a subject with a substantial gender imbalance – getting to know suitable role models is not always easy.
One of the goals of the "Women in Physics Career Symposium" was to address precisely this: to connect women in physics at different career stages, hear inspirational talks from other women who walked the same path, and build a professional and mentoring network of peers.
The first edition of the event, which is hoped will become a regular occurrence, took place on July 1, 2022, as a satellite event to the annual meeting of the Swiss Physical Society at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. It was organised by the University of Zurich, the Paul Scherrer Institute, and the Swiss Physical Society, with the support of the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences (SCNAT) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).
"As women in physics, we face special challenges in a male-dominated field. This event brought many of us together and allowed us to exchange both positive and negative experiences in a warm and open-minded atmosphere," says invited speaker Jennifer Schober from EPFL - École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
An open and supportive atmosphere
This first symposium successfully brought together about 75 participants, both female and male, ranging from undergraduate students up to senior researchers and professors in a format designed to foster networking, openness, respect and sharing. Invited speakers from across the spectrum of career levels shared their perspectives: their struggles and how rewarding and exciting a career in physics can be.
This supportive atmosphere spurred conversation among participants who had the opportunity to learn from their peers how to navigate a career in physics at different stages, ask questions, share career advice, gain information and expand their network. Interactions and moments captured by Visual Artist and Designer Nathaniel Miller, who created live sketches and drawings of the event in real-time, documented stories of women and science in a one-of-a-kind way.
Marc Janoschek, laboratory head at PSI and associate professor at University of Zürich, who initiated the event was delighted with its success. “The open, welcoming and respectful atmosphere created by all participants was truly humbling. I personally learned a lot by hearing about the challenges, passions and achievements of our female colleagues, and I am sure this holds true for all participants in one way or the other.”
Kick-starting a mentoring program
An important goal of the symposium was to kick-start a mentoring network between young physicists at the early stages of their career and experienced mentors. In this year’s first iteration, 21 mentees were matched with mentors, who will meet and accompany them throughout the coming year.
“Preparing my career talk helped me reflect on my career so far, the different decisions I've made, and the role my mentors have played. I'm looking forward to taking part in the mentoring scheme, to be able to hopefully help some of the next generation in the way that my mentors helped me,” says invited speaker and mentor Claire Donnelly, who is a Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids in Dresden, Germany.
The first of many
Following the success of this first event, Janoschek is keen that it will not be a one-off. “After this initial success, we have already started preparation for next year’s iteration of the event, where I’m hoping to see even more colleagues attend. I’d especially like to encourage my male colleagues to attend and show support for our remarkable female colleagues and students!” he says.
The sentiment that this was just the beginning is shared widely throughout participants, as expressed by keynote speaker Gillian Butcher, Chair of Working Group Women in Physics at the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) from the University of Leicester.
"While this meeting was a first, from the people I met and the positive momentum apparent, I am sure this will just be the start of a journey to gender equity [in physics in Switzerland]".
Voices from the symposium
Here are some testimonials from participants of the 2022 edition; we look forward to supporting more female physicists next year!
"This program is a great venue for female scientists to network. It provides us with opportunities to discover our potentials and helps us a lot in finding our confidence in doing science." Fatima Alarab, Paul Scherrer Insitute
"Open discussions addressed general issues of gender inequality in physics, while equally very personal experiences were shared, positive and negative, allowing young female researchers including myself to see the bigger picture of how female academic careers can look like." Viola Bauernfeind, Université de Fribourg
"The symposium was very important for me to see that many women feel the same way and that the difficulties they face (childcare, change of location, etc.) are very similar." Lea Halser, CERN.
Text: Paul Scherrer Institute / Federica Ricatto and Miriam Arrell