Women in physics take the spotlight at WomenNetPhysics

The women behind the WomenNetPhysics conference
The women behind the WomenNetPhysics conference

Navigating the world of physics can be challenging, especially for women. The WomenNetPhysics conference  aims to empower and connect women in physics by showcasing inspiring role models and fostering conversations about gender equality.

On 22 March, Utrecht University will host the very first Dutch conference on women working in physics. WomenNetPhysics is a networking event for anyone interested in the role of women in physics, regardless of where you are in your career - whether you are a student, an academic, or a professional in the industry. Register here.

Universities are actively working to attract more female physics students, but still only one in four students is female. This often means women in physics navigate their careers as part of a minority, which can be difficult.

Miriam Sterl , a PhD candidate at the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (IMAU) and the Royal Dutch Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) , experienced this firsthand during her double bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics: "Jokes like ’Oh, good that Miriam is here, then we have someone to do the dishes’, ’Of course you’re going to do the easiest physics master’s’, or ’Did you really get math explained by a girl’!’ were unfortunately not uncommon."

Lack of role models

"During my bachelor’s degree, I noticed many female students struggled with imposter syndrome, feeling unsure of their abilities. This was something I rarely observed among male students," says Miriam. In addition to being a PhD candidate, she is also co-organizer of the WomenNetPhysics conference and hopes that the event will help to combat this lack of confidence among women.

The lack of female role models in physics is, according to her, a significant contributor to this imposter syndrome. "The importance of role models is often overlooked," she explains. "While men can certainly inspire me, having role models who share your gender can have a significant impact on self-confidence, especially when all’other role models differ in this aspect." She emphasizes the value of bringing women and other underrepresented groups together to learn from each other’s experiences.

Focus on research

"We hope the conference will be a place where you can meet and connect with role models," says Anna von der Heydt , initiator of WomenNetPhysics and climate researcher at IMAU. She emphasizes that while connecting women is crucial, the conference also aims to showcase the high-quality research conducted by women in physics.

The programme features young female scientists from the research institutes affiliated with the Utrecht University Physics department. You can also attend lectures by prominent figures like Petra Rudolf , professor of Experimental Solid State Physics at the University of Groningen, and Christa Hooijer , scientific director of TNO. Anna and Miriam hope the WomenNetPhysics program will inspire and empower attendees.

Equal opportunities

Miriam and Anna think it is unlikely that there will ever be an equal number of men and women working in physics, but they don’t think that matters. "I do hope that in the future, women will no longer be treated differently simply because they are women," says Anna. Miriam agrees, adding: "It’s about creating equal opportunities. We have to acknowledge that this is not yet the case and do our best to change it."

The conference is open to everyone, regardless of gender, who is interested in the position of women in physics. The first edition will take place in Utrecht, but Miriam and Anna hope other universities might be interested in hosting future events.

About Anna and Miriam

Anna studied physics in Germany, completed her PhD in fluid mechanics, and now works as an oceanographer at the Department of Physics. Miriam completed a double bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics in Utrecht and has been a PhD candidate at NIOZ and IMAU for two years. Her research focuses on mixing processes in the ocean and their impact on climate. The fact that there were so few women in physics was a motivator for her to demonstrate that it is possible to succeed in the field.