Opening remarks

rhaana starling 200x300.jpgI had the honour of being named Diversity Champion in the University staff awards last November. This meant more to me than I could articulate, because it meant that people had gone to the effort of putting in a case for me, valuing the work I am doing, and that is a good feeling. I lead the Equality and Diversity (E&D) Committee in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and spent three years on the Diversity Committee for the Royal Society, a learned society for science in the UK. As a younger physicist I didn't feel any bias or barriers, but the challenges built up as I faced a series of short-term contracts, a 'two-body problem', and work-life balance questions as I became a parent and looked at increasing workload, tenure and promotion. I also saw behaviours and policies that seemed to disfavour and discourage women or parents and carers. That is when I thought that joining the equalities team could make a difference, and so far it has been an eye-opening and rewarding experience, if sometimes very challenging.

Together with my colleagues, I have been involved in International Women's Day (IWD) events for a few years. In 2015 the department of Physics and Astronomy held the first program of events to mark IWD. We included a suggestion box in the foyer. At the following meeting of the E&D working group we emptied the box and found the comment: "Why isn't there an international men's day celebration?" Fair question you might say, but for me it lay at the heart of the need for discussion around the experiences of women in the workplace. There are undoubtedly men whose contributions are overlooked, who are talked over in meetings, who are slower to get promoted, who are given the less prestigious or less career-building additional roles. But this happens more often to women and other minority groups. Seeing things from their perspective and recognising that there are barriers faced by some and not others is why we need an International Women's Day. Diversity should be seen as the strength it is.

By 2016 the momentum around E&D activities in Physics had built as far as enabling us to host the UK launch of the ESA/SIPA Press photographic exhibition Space Girls Space Women, opened by Met Office Chief Scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo. In 2017 we were able to begin discussing intersectionality of gender with other protected characteristics, for example race or disability. We held a screening of Hidden Figures, marked LGBT+ History Month for the first time with a display in our foyer, and hosted the first leg of Angela Saini's UK Universities Book Tour for Physics World Book of the Year 'Inferior: how science got women wrong'. All too often the barriers are interwoven and complex to disentangle.

Marking International Women's Day is becoming an integral part of university life. We need to celebrate the achievements of women, often unsung, and highlight the equal roles that men and women play in cutting-edge discoveries. And the outcome: to acknowledge the challenges we have not yet faced and pledge to take action.

Rhaana Starling
Associate Professor
Department of Physics and Astronomy

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