APS News

South Africa Hosts Conference on Women in Physics

iupap 2011 
The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) held its fourth International Conference on Women in Physics in early April. Hundreds of participants from around the world travelled to Stellenbosch, South Africa to share observations and discuss issues facing women physicists.

“One of the main aims is to highlight the situation of women in physics around the world and to compare and contrast,” said Meg Urry, an astrophysicist at Yale and head of the US delegation. “Another is to learn from one another practices and policies that have been effective.”

The experiences and issues faced are as varied as the home nations of the participants. In some of the developing nations, women face issues of outright discrimination and failing infrastructure, while in industrialized countries, career balancing and creating inclusive academic environments are more at the forefront.

One of the main recommendations developed by the United States delegation focused on establishing a better system of professional development for women physicists.

“We found a real need for that professional development starting in undergrad school and extending throughout her entire career,” said Beth Cunningham, Executive Officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).

Other recommendations included developing ways to create a more inclusive academic environment for both boys and girls to study physics in school, in part by using more findings from social scientists who have studied the issues. Mentorship programs and finding ways to have more women apply for prizes and awards were also included in the list of recommendations.

In addition to developing these recommendations, the conference was also an opportunity for participants to engage in some of their own professional development and network with physicists from around the world. Sessions included talks about particle physics and an update on a global survey of women in physics. After the conference, attendees had the opportunity to travel to a nearby elementary school and talk about science to the students.

“It was a jam-packed few days. I met some really interesting people,” Cunningham said.

The event drew men and women from a wide range of physics disciplines who were at various stages of their careers. Attendees included undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, society members and industrial physicists.

The conference brought together nearly 300 participants from over 70 countries from across the world, including Burkina Faso, Japan, Russia and Nigeria. Egypt also sent a delegation despite the recent political upheaval in the country.

IUPAP picked South Africa for its fourth conference on women in physics for a combination of reasons. A major factor was to try to get more people from developing nations in Africa to participate. Hosting the conference in South Africa cut travel costs for those on the continent, dramatically increasing the participation of people from African nations. Past conferences were held in Paris, Brazil and South Korea.

In addition, South Africa has been aggressively pushing its science programs and building its academic credentials. It already is home to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, and is vying to host the Square Kilometer Array of radio telescopes.

“They’re really entering the big time in that field. They see the strategic investments in science as important,” Urry said.

The conference featured a number of prominent speakers. Wednesday’s plenary speaker was Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who discovered pulsars. Earlier in the day, Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, delivered a talk about experiential science education.

Many of the talks were video-recorded and can be accessed online. Emma Ideal, a graduate student at Yale, was in charge of putting together the video archive from the meeting. She said that they hoped that attendees would be able to keep a record of the talks.  

“Others who weren’t able to make it for whatever reason… this broadcast would allow them to have a greater participation role by means of the post-conference dissemination,” Ideal said.

Gray arrow  Videos from 4th International Conference on Women in Physics

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Editor: Alan Chodos