Exhibition: Women in Research at University of Reading

Last month, the University of Reading (UoR) launched an exhibition to commemorate women in research. The exhibition displayed images of some of the women working in different research areas at the university, and each picture is accompanied by the woman’s story.

Image author’s own

Tharindu Liyanagunawardena is one of the women whose portrait was one of those at the exhibition. She is studying a PhD in computer science at UoR, and is an international student from Sri Lanka.

When I first met Tharindu, I never would have guessed that she is married with toddler twins. She told me that she got pregnant during her second year at UoR, which would have been very inconvenient indeed for a research student. But she explained her situation to the university, and they were very understanding about her situation. She was allowed a flexible curriculum as long as she was able to get her work done.

However, even with flexible working hours, I asked Tharindu how she managed do her research and still be able to have time to look after her children. “I usually work at home,” said Tharindu. “And my husband babysits if I need to do stuff.”

Before coming to study in the UK, Tharindu took an undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka. She told me that the ratio of men to women in the engineering faculty was approximately 8:1. Although there is a significant disparity between men and women in the course, Tharindu said that she did not experience any notable signs of discrimination against female students.

During the exhibition seminar, the university invited some of their students to talk about their research and what inspired them to go into their fields.

“Cheesy as it is, probably the teachers at school, they were fantastic,” said Emily Shaw, who graduated with a first class honours in human and physical geography last year. “I loved the field trips…I came to Reading, was really impressed with the course, and yeah, I loved it all the way through.”

One of the speakers at the seminar was Dr Sophie Bowlby from the department of geography. She started as a lecturer at UoR in 1972, a time when female academics weren’t all that common.

“I was the only woman in the department, with 22 male colleagues,” recalled Dr Bowlby. “I think that makes it 4.5% of female representation.”

Although Dr Bowlby was shortly joined by another woman and the percentage of female staff, as she put it, “shot up to the dizzy heights of 9%”, they were still the minority. However, her male colleagues were happy to have her join their department.

“I was told by a senior member of staff when I arrived, how pleased he was to see me, how good he thought that there should be women in the department, in academic life.”

Dr Bowlby was asked how things have changed over the past 40 years for women in academic in Reading.

“Well we’ve changed a lot of course. In my department, we quite rapidly actually got more women into 1980s, and you stop feeling abnormal and start feeling like a normal person, which was very nice. Nevertheless, it had taken quite a long time, I think, for some members of staff at the university to accept women as intelligent as men.”

Dr Bowlby also pointed out that at the start of career at UoR, although she felt very welcomed in her department, there was still the perception that even though it was accepted that women can be smart to do work, they will give it all up once they got married and had children. But now there are many women who have had children and have managed to juggle work and family at the same time.

Still, even with all the efforts in trying to break the glass ceiling, women are underrepresented in the world of research. What can universities do to promote women in research?

“There is still a lot of bias for women, and the fact that women have overcome some of those barriers is attributed to them, but not necessarily to the university,” said Dr Bowlby. “Obviously things have improved since I started, [but] I hope that we’ll make some further tremendous improvements.”

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