Women of STEM

The Pioneer: Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Famous for discovering the first pulsar more than 50 years ago, Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has also been a lifelong advocate of women in science.

As a school pupil in Northern Ireland in the 1950s, like other girls she was not permitted to study science until her parents (and others) protested.

“The boys got sent to the science lab and the girls got sent to the domestic science room because everybody knew that girls were only going to get married so they needed to learn how to make beds,” she recalls.

Currently visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford, she was one of a group of female scientists whose efforts led to awards recognising commitment to advancing the careers of women in science. The Athena Swan scheme requires universities and colleges to address gender equality.

“That went slowly to begin with until some of the bodies that give funding to universities took notice and said you have to hold one of these Athena Swan awards if you want our money,” she says. “And that focused minds remarkably.”

The gender divide in science is cultural rather than anything to do with women’s brains and some countries do much better than others, she says.

In astrophysics southern European countries like France, Spain and Italy do much better than northern European countries like Germany and The Netherlands, for instance.

“In all those countries the proportion of women is going up but the pattern has stayed the same, which is interesting,” she says.

“The progress is slow, things are changing gradually.”

Her advice to women in science? “Don’t be daunted, hang in there, work hard, of course, be courageous.”

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