Professor Alison Walker works in the Department of Physics, part of the Faculty of Science at the University of Bath. Professor Walker recently talked to www.jobs.ac.uk about overcoming barrier in a career where women are still in the minority.
Alison’s father was the person who first interested her in physics – by talking to her about time travel during her early teens. She found this fascinating, and because Alison was also good at maths, A level physics seemed an obvious choice.
“I was also good at languages at school and could have pursued that as a career option, but I loved science and found physics to be highly creative. I felt that physics was going to offer me good opportunities to contribute to scientific research later on, and this appealed to me. I liked using my imagination and being creative, and physics lets you do just this in a scientific way. At school a minority of girls choose A level physics, and this is disappointing.”
A barrier that many women face is achieving equality in the home with respect to child-care and household chores, so that they have sufficient time left over to dedicate to their career.
“Once I was working in a university and had my first child, having a supportive partner made all the difference to me. Complete equality with the domestic chores is essential – even if this means that both partners each only have three quarters of a career when their children are younger.
“Within science it is very hard to take an extended period of maternity leave, as you will be letting down your research team if you take a longer period of time off. But universities are very flexible employers, and you can often do your research at home, and sometimes bring your baby to work if necessary. Universities generally have excellent workplace nurseries, although there are sometimes long waiting lists.
“I really haven’t encountered sexism at work, ever. There is absolutely no barrier for women to progress within academic physics careers in this way. It is true to say that university physics departments in the UK are still male-dominated, and this needs to change. This is far less so in European universities generally.”
Another barrier that many women face in life is confidence in their own ability, and this is something that Alison believes can be acquired, even if you don’t have this in large measures to start with.
“A feisty personality is a definite advantage in the scientific world, and can be something that boys tend to have more than girls, but not always. You have to be prepared to leap into the void and to take risks. Some people will lack confidence but never let that be a barrier. If you use your initiative and find ways to think around a problem successfully, your confidence will grow.”
Alison feels it is important to get as wide a skill-set as you can, as this will be a great advantage in an academic or commercial career within physics. Before and during her first degree, Alison obtained a government sponsorship as a student engineer.
“That experience of engineering gave me the opportunity to develop practical skills which were invaluable to me later on in my academic career. You need to be willing to use your hands and learn how to use equipment. Women are just as capable in this respect as men.”
“Anyone interested in pursuing an academic career in a university must be prepared to travel – it maybe just to Europe but you must be willing to travel to conferences and to network with other academics. So it is important to be quite outgoing and a little adventurous at the same time. Never let fear get in the way of your career.”
Professor Alison Walker attended the University of Oxford and obtained an MA and then a DPhil. Alison became a Research Associate at Michigan State University in the USA. She then moved back to the UK and worked as Senior Research Associate at a scientific research laboratory. Alison was given a lectureship, working initially at the University of East Anglia before moving to the University of Bath. She was appointed Professor of Physics in 2008.
Alison’s field of research is computational condensed matter physics, and her current research areas are modelling plastic electronic devices and novel solar cells.