Women in Science - Meet the Researcher with Prof Wu Ling-An, Institute of Physics (CAS)

Categories: Meet the researchers

On the occasion of International Women's Day, EURAXESS went out to talk to female scientists to hear their stories. In the final interview of the series, EURAXESS interviewed Professor Ling-An Wu (Institute of Physics, CAS) to catch a glimpse about the situation of female scientists in China.

Professor Ling-An Wu is a professor in experimental nonlinear and quantum optics at the Institute of Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She grew up in England, and then obtained her BS from Peking University and PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in physics. She has former classmates and students in Europe, China and the US. She is officially retired, but working harder than before due to new outreach activities. She currently teaches at the new University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Huairou, Beijing.


Professor Wu, please tell us about your research career.

I only began doing research as such after I started on my PhD programme when I was 37. Before, I was doing English translation and interpreting at the Institute of Physics - back then, young scientists didn't have good standards of English - but I wanted to do research. When China started to open up, my husband went to the US as a visiting scholar, and I went along as a spouse. Due to the Cultural Revolution we never finished our formal courses, and I wanted to make up for that. I got my degree after 6 years when I was 43.

What sparked your interest in science?

As a kid, I was fascinated with stars, wondering what is going on in the skies above. Astronomy was my first love, but I loved experiments, making things with my hands. I liked to create new things. Except for needlework! I hated embroidery.

Why did you choose optics as your field of research?

I love optics because it is in every part of our lives. It has a great future and unlimited opportunities for research, because it is related to our vision. Vision is the most basic sense in our whole body. Through our eyes we learn the most - nothing can surpass vision. Similarly in science, you have to use optics to interpret the world. Be it medicine or astronomy - you must transform the signal into something you can see. That's why I like optics.

Did you have any role models when you were growing up?

I grew up in England. My mother - herself a remarkable woman - always told us about Marie Curie, so this was my role model. My mother's major was English and my father taught Chinese at the University of Oxford, so we didn't have much science background. Still, she brought me up with the idea that we should do science. She wanted me to become a doctor, but I thought physics seemed a lot easier. Some people say physics is difficult, but this is a misconception.

What were the greatest challenges that you have faced throughout your career? Do you think those challenges differ from those of your male colleagues?

In England, I went to a girl's school. There you don't really feel pressure from male competitors which gives you a certain amount of confidence. I came back to China when I was 18, which was a great culture shock, but I wasn't afraid of anything, despite the fact I was virtually illiterate in Chinese. This was rather naïve. But at that age you don't foresee things, and you adapt quickly. And I was struck with the equality between men and women in China at that time. Women and girls were tough and believed they could do everything the men could do. That's quite different now, sadly.

The Chinese media put a lot of emphasis on the feminine aspect now - women should be weak, rely on the man. And I think that affects the gender balance in science to a certain extent. In some ways, we have gone backwards.

How would you describe the gender balance in your field?

In 1999, the International Union of Applied Physics set up a working group on Women in Physics because the American Institute of Physics discovered the number of people taking up physics was going down, so there would be a shortage of physics majors in the future. Then they realized that women were an untapped pool of resources

Wu Ling-An at the Beijing Science Festival in 2015

I was asked to represent China on the first IUPAP Working Group on Women in Physics, so in 2000 I collected some stats and got some data from Peking University etc. I was shocked. The percentage of undergraduates in physics was about 10%. When I was in college before the Cultural Revolution, it was 20%. Interestingly, I discovered that in later years at the graduate level, the percentage shot up to 20 to 30%. That's because of job discrimination. Women have to get a higher degree to find a job.

Looking at my own institute, during the seventies, we had four group leaders who were women - out of 8 or so - in the optics division. Now it's down to one.

What could be done to encourage women to choose a scientific career and to help them progress?

We need role models. The media can have both a good and bad influence - before, the norm was news about strong women and what they achieved, but we don't see this today; now the emphasis is on their feminine side.

Women have to take care of family, housework, and need support services. Those now are not as good as in my time. We had a nursery right in our institute, so I could go feed my son during a break.

Is there any good initiative to promote gender equity from China or Europe that you would like to highlight?

We have the All China Women's Federation, and a group in charge of women's affairs in our institute, but they are not too concerned about women's career problems. Every 8 March we have talks but these are all related to women's family affairs, they are not career-oriented. Women need advice on careers and jobs and sadly female researchers are certainly discriminated against during job search.

Once you make it to grad school, you have made this decision and are prepared to continue in the field. But as a woman, you often face pressure regarding marriage and children. We have pushed some initiatives to tackle this through our Chinese Physical Society Women in Physics Group, which I helped set up. Within this framework, for example, we pushed the NNSFC to "stop the clock" for women when applying for grants as a young investigator, and pushed the age limit from 35 to 40, to reflect women's maternity leave.

Professor Wu Ling-An speaking at at the Association of Asia Pacific Physcis Societies' 2nd Workshop on Women in Physics

Can you describe the discrimination female researchers face in China?

Some is direct, some indirect. The indirect is more subtle. You are not in the "old boys' club", don't have friends on committees. The glass ceiling exists, although some men claim when we have a woman candidate we always try to support her.

Direct discrimination is shocking. A lot of women would go to non-research positions and teaching, instead of research. One student I know, when taking up a job in a scientific press, was asked to sign a contract that she wouldn't have a baby within the next 3 years! That is disgraceful and illegal, but she had to accept it.

Gender equity was certainly never in place in the Chinese countryside, but in the cities, both parents worked and whoever got back from work first, would start to make dinner. This was at least the case at the universities, where we also had kindergartens and nurseries.

In your experience, how important is mobility for researchers' careers and how feasible is this for female researchers?

International experience is important. The crucial interactions happen during conferences - not just during the presentations but also during coffee breaks.

Female researchers have a harder time, especially with a small baby, travelling abroad. On the other hand, grandparents often look after the kids in China. That is an advantage - but it is not always possible. I was lucky I had a lot of support during my days, from my institute and from my mother while having two small children when I left China to pursue my PhD.

What does your average day look like?

I am retired, but am busier than ever! I just started to teach at the age of 70, at the newly set-up University of CAS in Huairou. I still do a lot of English polishing.

I help with supervision of graduate students, and I am engaged in outreach. Students at our institute started a chapter of the Optical Society of America which I'm a member of. OSA has many international activities so you can apply and set up a student chapter. Every year they organise a trip to do hands-on demonstrations in a Beijing suburb to teach optics to kids of migrant workers. I am very happy to go along - it's fun to work with children. I also work with the Beijing Science Festival every July. Last year was exceptionally fun as it was the International Year of Light. My programme is really full.

How is optics doing as a field in China?

China is doing really well in this field, advancing very fast. The gap is definitely narrowing. We are not at the top yet but we are catching up. The living standards and research funds are also much higher than they used to be. As a result, a lot of overseas returnees are coming back to China. However, most of them are male.

Why do you think most returnees are male?

It is very competitive to find a good job in the West now. Women often give up research, but those who don't can get more opportunities because of affirmative policies towards women. Some universities in the West would consciously hire women to have a more gender-balanced staff ratio. Female Chinese researchers abroad can benefit from that. For men, the situation is very competitive, so if they have a good offer from China, they will come back.

Many Chinese females returning from the West cannot find a suitable job and so stay at home, if the husband has a good salary. And if the woman doesn't work, of course it will be her job to make dinner.

What are your hopes for the future generation of female scientists?

First we have to raise the issue of gender discrimination, and make people aware that this is an issue. That was a problem in China. International collaboration is crucial to learn from each other.

Second, we have to be pragmatic. The balance is not going to become 50% straight away, but the ratio should stay constant. If 30% of women go to graduate school, there should be the same 30 % at the assistant professor, associate professor and full professor levels, including the academicians. Currently we have only about 5% female academicians - overall, which means in physics it is probably even less.

In the constitution, men and women are equal, and we sometimes take this for granted. However, weshould be asking not for equality but for equity. That is different. And a lot of people, including women, are not aware of that.

How do you encourage female students to pursue a career in science?

Last summer I got an email from a woman who said her daughter did very well in the entrance exams. The daughter wanted to study physics but her father disapproved. How is a girl in physics ever going to get a job? Her mother was really in a dilemma, and asked me for advice.

I told her: Don't be worried about your daughter not finding a job - with physics you can do anything. You should support your daughter to make her own decision. After several weeks I got a letter back, with a copy of a letter of admission to the University of Science and Technology of China. I was so happy.

However this attitude from the father is very typical nowadays. It wouldn't have been in my times. Parents were very proud to see their children - girls or boys - go into science and technology. Science and technology was considered the best you could do, as it was the most difficult. Unfortunately that is not necessarily the case anymore for women.

Showing the beauty of physics to primary school students

What specific challenges do female scientists face in China?

When I was a kid, I was just as enthusiastic as the boys, but then there is this funny change when you grow up and teachers suddenly would see you differently. It is atrocious if your high school teacher puts you off with comments suggesting you will find physics difficult just because you're a girl. We can't waste resources and talent like this.

I think females who have taken the decision to do physics have an idea what it entails. Another problem is the retirement policy. Retirement age is 55 for female associate professors, while it's 60 for men. This threshold is unfair and it hurts women's careers - they must retire just when they can finally concentrate on work, when they are liberated from household chores and the children are grown-up. However, if you manage to be a full professor, then the retirement age is 65 for both genders in most cases.

We have some outstanding Chinese female researchers though so there is hope. Look what the old generation has achieved - such as Tu Youyou - the first Chinese scientist to be awarded a Nobel Prize!

Professor Wu, thank you for your time!