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Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Professor in Astrophysics, President of the Institute of Physics and gender equality champion

25 November 2009

The International Year of Astronomy has been splendid. I had the honour of speaking at the launch at UNESCO in Paris, and it is a great pleasure to be the final guest blogger of the year on UKRC’s astronomy blog. It’s an opportunity to look at some of the important issues that are still around for women in physics and astronomy.

What has the year been good for? It’s raised the profile of astronomy. It’s reached many people who hadn’t opportunities before to learn about space. It’s strengthened the campaign for dark skies. It’s got telescopes into schools. And more. We have to thank the International Astronomical Union for getting it off the ground.

And for women, there has been the ‘She’s an Astronomer’ strand to the year. This is right and proper. When I became a professor, I doubled the number of female professors of physics in the UK overnight, from one to two. Now there are about 40 out of 360 in total. Around 20 percent of physics undergraduates are women, and a lot go on to do PhDs. An increase – though still slow, and hopefully the International Year will have a positive impact.

I nearly didn’t get to do science at secondary school. Girls were directed to domestic science, boys to science. My parents fought for me, and thanks to them I got put in with the boys. And at the end of that first term I came top of the science class. Throughout my career I have been one of few women. When I was a young working mum it was rare for a woman to be at work and even more unusual for a mother. To get on as a woman in science you need lots of stamina, excellent time management skills, and you have to know your priorities. It was very hard work but it has been worth it.

While a grad student I was involved in the discovery of pulsars, but it was simply unthinkable then that a student should get a Nobel Prize along with her supervisor. Views were very fixed – there was a senior male scientist (in a white coat!), with minions doing the work. He claimed the reward, and took the blame if things went wrong. Now things are more democratic, more team-based. I have received many awards and accolades over the years. It’s more fun getting lots of prizes; if you win a Nobel prize nobody gives you anything else, because they see it as unsurpassable.

I’ve always worked to improve things for other women, for example through the Athena Project. I am the first female President of the Institute of Physics. I’ve been the astronomy Trustee of the National Maritime Museum for nine years – I am very proud of the Greenwich Observatory and the new planetarium that has been built under my watch. They’ve done a huge amount for the International Year. People in academia are under immense pressure, and you have to balance research, teaching, outreach and family commitments, let alone service to your profession or beyond it. However, there are plenty of outside bodies keen to have an able female member.

Science will be stronger when its workforce is more diverse – with a higher proportion of women and people from other backgrounds. Changing society is a slow process, but gradually men who have played a larger part in bringing up their children are reaching positions of authority, and they have an awareness of the issues that affect working women that is proving helpful.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is visiting Professor in Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford. She has had a long and distinguished career, and has been awarded many prizes (see the attached biography for more information). In 2007 she was made Dame of the British Empire.

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