The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
The aim of this project was to conduct a scoping study into why lower numbers of female graduates choose nuclear fusion Ph.D.s relative to other physical sciences. This is a particularly nuanced study as we are considering the nuclear fusion research pathway in comparison to other STEM routes. As such, we might expect all females choosing physical sciences post-graduate study to be exposed to similar challenges and enablers, however, significantly fewer females are choosing a research career in fusion physics.
A survey was undertaken, with follow-up semi-structured interviews. The target population was the 21 female Ph.D. candidates who studied within the UK’s Fusion Centre for Doctoral Training during the period 2012-2019, with a response rate of 7 and 3 for the survey and interviews respectively. Responses were analysed thematically, drawing out themes from the literature (identified during the literature review) and additional themes arising from responses.
Our findings identify three key enablers for potential female doctoral students in fusion:
The presence of role models (both male and female, but particularly female) who demonstrate potential career progression routes and encourage certain ‘ways of working’ including: encouraging all types of questions; an openness to being wrong or uncertain; and thinking time not being seen as a weakness or lack of understanding. The importance of role models in demonstrating potential career progression has also been highlighted by Whitelegg et al. (2002).
Opportunities for work experience within mixed group doctoral labs during undergraduate degrees. This is supported by the literature, with previous studies showing that women in male-dominated academic work environments experience lower feelings of belonging (Leaper, 2015) and rate their competence as lower than those in other environments (Ulku-Steiner et al., 2000).
Evidence of mixed groups of students and staff at open days and on courses, and evidence of an open community where the sorts of ‘ways of working’ listed above are encouraged, where gendered attitudes are discouraged, and where there are clear routes for dealing with any challenges that might arise
Our analysis also confirmed previous literature findings that a key barrier for women working in STEM subjects within academia is working within a potential hostile environment in which women may feel patronised, and experience higher expectations of them relative to their male colleagues (Donovan et al., 2005; Hodgson et al., 2000; Leaper, 2015; Whitelegg et al., 2002; Whitelegg, 2004). It is therefore key that in order to achieve the above, higher expectations are not placed on women. Our findings suggest that the challenges are a result of both unconscious and conscious bias, including specific incidents where gender appears to play a role in the negative treatment of students.
Our findings indicate that the majority of students chose to do a Ph.D. early in their undergraduate careers, but chose fusion as a focus either later in their undergraduate careers, or during their masters. This highlights the optimum timing for intervention to be mid-late undergraduate.
This research has been conducted in collaboration with the Fusion CDT through our colleague at the University of Liverpool. As such, findings will have immediate impact, as they will be reported back to CDT staff with the intention to enact changes to improve the gender balance of future CDT cohorts.
As a scoping study, this research will not be published elsewhere, but it is hoped that it may lead to further study within the area. Many potential further avenues for exploration have been highlighted in this report.