Changing science, one page at a time: an interview with Jessica Wade
Interview by Anna Maria Cherubini and Francesca Arici
- Born inUnited Kingdom
- Studied inUnited Kingdom
- Lives inUnited Kingdom
Jessica Wade is a physicist at the Blackett Laboratory of Imperial College London. Her outreach work and her engagement in tackling gender bias in STEM makes her one of the most influential persons in matters of equality and diversity in science. In 2019 she was awarded a British Empire Medal for services to Gender Diversity in Science.
How can you explain your work to non-specialists?
I work in the Center for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London. Our work is a combination of physics, chemistry and materials science.
We are working on new materials for light emitting diodes (LEDs), particularly carbon based materials, because they’re much more easy to work and offer new functionalities compared to their inorganic counterparts. My part in that whole project is to try and make the light emitted by these LEDs to be circularly polarised. So we do a lot of physics in the characterisation of different structures, which helps us to work out which would be the best for using in real world devices.
So you are working on direct applications to technology?
Sure, the LEDs that we create will be for future television and mobile phone displays. Inside the LEDs there is a very interesting arrangement of molecules, so understanding how to optimise that is fundamental to getting these structures into devices.
That’s great. So your background is in experimental physics?
My background is in experimental solid state physics, in particular characterization using different kinds of spectroscopy. A bit of microscopy too, but it’s less fun for these materials as the features we are looking at are much smaller than you can resolve with visual light. I’m also interested in the molecular structure through the whole organic film, and microscopy can typically just tell me about the surface. Spectroscopy is my most favourite thing. And, actually, speaking about my favourite thing, we have this beautiful exhibition of Leonardo’s drawings at the Queen’s Gallery at the moment. There is a whole section on spectroscopy, how it was used in curating and restoring the artwork. I love the application of spectroscopy in understanding renaissance masterpieces.
Which was your path to science? When and why have you decided to study physics and to work in science?
Before physics I went to Chelsea School of Art where I studied maths, sciences and art. My parents are both medical doctors, so I knew that I’d do something scientific, eventually, but I studied art for one year and I really enjoyed it. But I missed structure and I missed maths – I think that I always knew that I was going to do physics. In the year in which I studied art I went to live in Florence – it was incredible. Being in the epicenter of the Italian renaissance emphasized how successful people could be as both scientists and artists. Then I started studying physics at Imperial, and found myself in a really nice research group where I worked on solar cells. I slightly changed for my postdoc, now I’m working on different devices – LEDs, not OPVs – but the techniques are the same.
Do you think you had any special support? from your parents or from your teachers, or it was just your passion?
Obviously I did because otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today. I went to an all-girls school and realise how lucky I was to have that privilege. In the UK, if you are a girl at an all-girls school you’re 2.5 times more likely to study physics than if you go to a mixed school.
It seems a bit counter-intuitive but not really.
It is not counter-intuitive when you think about the bias and stereotyping and all ridiculous things young people have to face at high school. I think the challenge that we have in this country, in the UK and probably everywhere is that we have very few physicists teaching physics so the majority of people teaching in schools do not have a degree in the subject – sometimes they don’t even like physics. It makes teaching it in an inspiring way really difficult. So if you end up at an independent school you’re much more likely to have a physicist teaching you physics.
I’m not sure if it’s about the lack of stereotyping that girls face in all girls schools, but I think that young people’s choices are much more influenced by the quality of the teacher. I had exceptional teachers in chemistry and physics, both had PhDs, they’d both done research, which is so rare. So I guess I’m the product of having scientific parents who let me do whatever you want, and teachers who knew more about physics than just the high school curriculum. I think that’s what motivated me.
We have a similar problem in Italy, often people teaching physics in high schools don’t have a degree in physics. But then we have a singularity, because in Italy we have almost a majority of girls doing maths at university, and a very high number studying physics, but we lose them at the research level, starting with the PhD.
Yes, and that’s about the culture in which we work. And that’s another thing that I think has to change. In education and in academic culture the change has to come from the top. I don’t think we will change education policy unless the government really commit to paying teachers properly.
In education and in academic culture the change has to come from the top. I don’t think we will change education policy unless the government really commit to paying teachers properly.
But I also think that the way that we reward science and the way that we promote people through science and mentor people through science is really screwed up and outdated. And that’s the thing we should address. There’s also a huge amount of bias against women, people of colour and non-Western people in almost every type of scientific career. And we should all work to reform policy and talk more openly about it. And also try and celebrate the outstanding women and people of colour working in science, engineering and … anywhere.
How do you get senior people, powerful people into that ? How do you get the government to commit to it really and not just in words? Europe has been mainstreaming gender for more than 20 years, and no much is really happening.
I think in the UK we’ve been very lucky in that we have Athena Swan, an award scheme that recognizes institutional commitment to gender equality, which credits universities and departments for their efforts. The Equality Challenge unit who lead Athena Swan also run one scheme called The Race Equality Charter, which considers black and minority ethnic representation in academia. Athena Swan started in early 2000s and the impact it had in a short amount of time was quite profound. We had about 5 percent of professors who were women in physics departments in the UK: it got up to about 12 or 13 percent within 5 or so years. In medicine Athena Swan is linked to research funding, which means it is taken very seriously.
I think Athena Swan is important – you’ve got to have something that rewards efforts made by universities, a systematic way of evaluating your progress and a means to learn best practice. But then you also need to have that linked to research funding or else people aren’t going to take it seriously.
As you can see looking at maths departments in UK, where the presence of women full professors is really low.
At the undergraduate level, maths is pretty gender balanced – so people don’t see it as being as horrific as in physics or computing: computing is 10 percent girls undergraduate and physics is just 20. I think that maths might need something like the Institute of Physics, with all of the work that they do with schools and universities (their Gender Balance program and Juno awards), to show that you need senior leadership to gender balance seriously. It is interesting to look at how America approach gender balance; they have some of the problems we have in Europe, and they are more similar to Italy because they have liberal arts degree and no one specializes until later on. Here they see the poor representation of women in physics, maths and computing from the end of undergraduate rather than high school. They have scientific funding called Advance Grants, which allow academics to spend time on initiatives that gender equality. It seems like a more sensible approach than relying on the good-will of people who already have a whole research and teaching load to take on equality battles in their spare time.
There are other things that are taken for granted in the UK. My mom is a psychiatrist and I grew up in the UCL nursery; so she was able to drop me at the nursery when she went in to work. Imperial College also has a nursery and support for women before and after they take maternity leave – as well as offering working dads paternity leave. But lots of universities don’t have that.
Does Imperial College give you time to work on this, or it is on top of your job?
Everything I do is on top of my job. I’m only a postdoc – but fighting for equality is something that I’ve come to love. I guess it’s become my after-of-work job and that’s really important.
How do you think you can convince people at higher level, e.g. governments, to push for equality?
I think that the real way that you’ll get governments – or even senior leadership in industry and universities – to care about it is to show that there’s some economic benefit.
The way for the university sector is to show that if you have gender balanced and diverse teams of different ethnicities then the research is more productive, more efficient, of higher impact and more effective.
In any industry, if you’ve got a group of white young men designing and creating your products, you’re going to make things that appeal to white young men, which is never going to be the whole of your audience. Maybe if you use an economic argument you’re much more likely to win it than by just saying “This isn’t fair. This isn’t right.”
Tell us a bit about what you do, about Wikipedia or other projects.
Whilst I love working with high schools, there are only so many schools you can visit and young people have so many other distractions – it’s difficult to image them remembering one physicist came in for a lunch time. So I am trying to work more with teachers and with parents and doing more long term education initiatives. I’ve also been editing Wikipedia to make it less sexist and racist.
It was indeed a scandal that the Nobel Prize winner Donna Strickland di not have a page.
Wikipedia has, for good reasons, notability criteria – a set of guidelines that ensure the biographies on the site are about people who are ‘notable’ and avoid having biographies for everyone on earth. But the notability criteria are based on an outdated idea of what is important. The sources accepted as credible on Wikipedia are biased toward white men. Donna Strickland’s page did exist and then it got deleted, not because she wasn’t notable, but because there wasn’t enough independent evidence that she was. The media weren’t writing about her enough, she wasn’t on TV enough and we didn’t celebrate her enough. So what I’ve been doing over the past few months is trying much more to get journalists and publishers to do more profiles of women scientists, and particularly black women scientists, because just getting the right references to prove their importance is a challenge.
I think for Wikipedia every country is slightly different: I talked to mathematicians in France and they said that there if you don’t have a prize you cannot be on Wikipedia as a mathematician: there aren’t many prizes and they tend to be awarded to men.
The American Geophysical Union recognized that they have a shortage of women being nominated for fellowships and prizes, so they set up a task force committed to writing their applications. The taskforce identifies the prizes that are coming up in the geosciences and then coordinates efforts to write the applications and nominations.
It would be great to extend actions like this one to other disciplines. Going back to Wikipedia, what would you suggest to improve equality and diversity there?
If you notice a successful woman, person of colour or LGBTQ+ scientists, engineer or mathematician who doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, why not write it yourself?
There are some criteria for notability here. If the person in question passes those, then great! Also, if you see an awesome scientist or engineer that has a biography on English speaking Wikipedia but not in your native language, why not translate?
You campaign to put Saimi’s Inferior in school libraries: can you tell us something about this? Which other reading would you suggest on the topic of gender inequality ( in science in particular)?
In 2017 I was asked to review Angela Saini’s book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story for Physics World and it changed my life, and the work I do to support women scientists. It made me think critically about how science was done, and how much it is influenced by the people who do it. I realised that it’s not only important to counter the ridiculous stereotypes that impact how people see themselves because it’s the right thing to do, but because for too long the systematic bias in society has stopped women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ from contributing to science. Other great books to try are A Lab of One’s Own by Patricia Fara, Superior by Angela Saini, Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks, and Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble.
Angela Saini’s book Inferior, changed my life, and the work I do to support women scientists.
Do you have any other project, present of future, you would like to share?
Maybe everyone who is reading this could commit to improving one Wikipedia page about a woman scientist, or nominating a woman or a person of colour for a prize or fellowship, or mentoring someone from an underrepresented group. My work involves using chiral materials for flexible electronic devices, and I’m excited by our recent paper.
Do you have a dream?
I dream of a world where everyone who has access to high quality science and maths education and can make their own mind up about what they want to be. I dream of a world where we stop wasting energy judging people on how they look, where they grew up or the colour of their skin and start thinking about how we can save the world from the climate catastrophe we are currently facing.