Chipping away at the glass ceiling

July 26, 1996

As a book and university league table today reveal the extent of discrimination against women academics, we focus on two new professors and their fight for recognition - Gillian Morriss-Kay (below left) and Carole Jordan (right).

Carole Jordan is Britain's most senior woman astronomer, with a position in the theoretical physics department at the University of Oxford and the distinction of having been the first woman president of the Royal Astronomical Society - over 170 years after its establishment. She says that, like many women scientists, she has succeeded despite being "the odd one out" numerically in a male-dominated field. Supporting women physics students at Oxford is important to her.

But Jordan is quick to stress that she is "wary of institutions" and as an undergraduate, would never have lived in a women's hall of residence. Her career has been an unusual one, via the scientific civil service as well as academe, and, until her arrival at Somerville, she knew few women scientists.

Jordan comes from Pinner, a north-western suburb of London, and was born in 1941, long before astronomy entered the school curriculum. She went to Harrow County Girls grammar school, where high academic achievement was expected. Her own interest in the subject was stimulated by reading classic astronomy books found in the school and public libraries. By contrast, she says, it was not until years later that she found physics equally fascinating. The result was an undergraduate career at University College London, where she read astronomy with maths and physics, one of a year with just three astronomers, and took a first. She stayed there to do her PhD with C. W. Allen, author of the classic reference work Astrophysical Quantities.

It was Allen, Jordan says, who offered her a choice of three PhD ideas. One, a statistical study of a particular class of star, sounded too dull. Another was highly experimental, and in that era workshop staff were none too liberated about women messing with their lathes. The third is the foundation of her career. It involved looking at spectra of the atmosphere of the sun in ultraviolet light.

These were new to science at the time because they cannot be observed from the surface of the earth. But in the 1960s, US and UK rockets took up instruments to allow them to be observed and today, satellites allow extended observation of the ultraviolet sky.

Spectra are made up of lines at particular wavelengths, each characteristic of a particular atom or - more to the point in this case - a particular state in which an atom can exist. In these new spectra were many mysterious ones. Allen told her: "If you can identify them you could make a name for yourself". The resulting investigation took her into the world of practical physics as well as astronomy. Lines like those seen in the atmosphere of the sun were also detected in readings from Zeta, an early machine for studying nuclear fusion at the Harwell laboratory in Oxfordshire. She thought that the lines in the spectra of the sun's atmosphere were from highly ionised atoms of iron from which up to 14 electrons had been stripped by the high energies there. Allen saw the Zeta spectra at an open day and realised that they were very similar to those of the sun.

This was the beginning of a collaboration between Jordan and the spectroscopy group at Culham laboratory, to which fusion research was moved when it was declassified. Jordan says that Allen was a "very good, honest and nice" man and a fine supervisor. In retrospect, she feels that when the paper describing the line identifications was published in Nature in 1965 she received less credit than she deserved, probably because she was younger then her collaborators at Culham. To this day, she is keen to push for more credit to go to young researchers.

This work, however, led to a paper which by 1984 was the most cited in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Europe's most important astronomy journal. It set out the relationships between different atomic species in the solar atmosphere and the sun's temperature and was a godsend, she says, for folk too lazy to do their own calculations.

After getting her PhD and spending most of 1966 at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Physics in Colorado, Jordan went to Culham, where the UK budget for developing fusion power was paying for a rocket programme to examine the sun's atmosphere. For three years she was funded by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which she describes as "a good time with good data." In 1969 the spectroscopy group was transferred to the Science Research Council, as the astrophysics research unit and she remained there until 1976 when she moved to Oxford.

She says that in spite of her rarity as a female scientist, she has few complaints about the SRC, whose annual reviews and promotions boards were probably fairer than the university promotions system.

Jordan arrived at Oxford with a specific type of lectureship, (CUF), a college rather than university post, an apparently arcane distinction that meant a larger teaching load and less status. Her appointment was funded mainly by Somerville college to provide tutorial teaching, with a relatively light lecturing load for the university. In fact, such appointments required an excellent research record.

The distinction between the university and college appointments seemed to her artificial since in physics most of the CUF lecturers, including herself, ran active research groups. In 1990 she finally became a university lecturer. In the same year came her election to the Royal Society, Britain's highest scientific honour - the day after a letter from the university turning down her application for a readership, the next stage on the university career ladder.

In 1992 there was concern in the university at the small number of women being promoted to professor, and since it appeared that only current readers were being considered, and few women were readers, many female academics claimed that this was tantamount to discrimination. Jordan was not promoted in 1992, despite her Royal Society fellowship.

Taking account of the strength of feeling about the lack of women professors, the university's legislative body, Congregation, voted to concentrate the next promotion round on creating readerships, giving more women a chance to compete for professorships in the future. Jordan was duly appointed as a reader in 1994. Earlier this month, after years of waiting, she finally became an Oxford professor, one of 18 women appointed out of a group of 162. Although the title was not accompanied by a rise to professorial salary levels for any of the new chairs, Jordan says it is the recognition, rather than the money that is important. There are now 30 female professors at Oxford - making up 8 per cent of the university's total professoriate, slightly better than the national average, and a huge improvement from the situation in 1989, when there were just four (2.8 per cent).

For many years the long drawn out saga led to the constant irritation of having to explain outside the university why she was not a professor, an anomalous situation for someone serving on senior bodies such as the Science and Engineering Research Council, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, and not least as president of the RAS.

The progress of the space age has led to remarkable advances in Jordan's area of research. Having started with the first crude spectra of the sun's atmosphere, gathered from short flights of US rockets, her work now involves data from telescopes on satellites capable of obtaining similar data about a wide range of other stars, as well as far more detailed information about the sun. To some extent, she says, the name of the game is still the same: finding out what heats up stellar atmospheres to perhaps ten million degrees while their surfaces are at only thousands of degrees.

The answer has to do with the transmission of energy via magnetic fields, whose strength can be measured by the appearance of spectral lines. In the case of the sun, bright active areas where huge amounts of energy are transported are visible. For other stars, models with a lot of data exist while for some types, only broad trends can be discerned with today's observations. The iron lines that started Jordan's research career have now been observed in about six other stars as well as the sun. Keeping a group of two research assistants and three to four research students busy on this work means getting money and getting access to data. This in turn means bidding for time on instruments in space on satellites like the International Ultraviolet Explorer: at the time of writing, she was about to get her first time on the Hubble Space Telescope. This work makes Jordan a leading light of a research community numbering a few hundred around the world.

Although life in Oxford has had its frustrations, Jordan is careful to praise Somerville for its work in encouraging women, and for its patient dealings with the university, and thought that the college's recent move to mixed status was "premature". The result in physics has been a dominantly male entry instead of the seven or eight, mostly very capable, women of old.

Despite her present distinction, Jordan adds that the science she does today resembles the activity she took an interest in as a Harrow schoolgirl of the 1950s. "Then I was fascinated by the way astronomers used observations to understand what happens in stars. Now I can make my own observations, even though much remains to be understood."

Martin Ince

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments