Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

Encouraging (And Keeping) Women In Physics

It’s a tired stereotype: Guys are more into hard science than gals.  Let’s roll up our sleeves and dig deep into the issues at the root of this old problem.

by Kerstin Nordstrom

More women are earning advanced degrees in physics is increasing, but women are still underrepresented in the quantitative sciences.

More women are earning advanced degrees in physics, but women are still underrepresented in the quantitative sciences.  (Image credit: Kerstin Nordstrom)

As a woman in physics, I’m often the odd man out.

At a recent conference I sat down for some post-poster session drinks with some colleagues. There were seven of us, and I was the only woman. Now, my lab is actually over half women, but the statistics at the table were more indicative of the state of the science. In the US, 1 of every 5 physics PhDs is earned by a woman. [1]

Believe it or not, this is good news. The percentage of PhDs earned by women has increased steadily since 1980. The trend line seems to point up; there is no stagnation. Also, the hiring rate of tenure-track, female faculty members is right on the money. Women make up 1 in 5 tenure-track hires. [1]

But of course, there is bad news. Even though women are earning more PhDs, at this rate of increase, we won’t see parity in physics for 70 more years.

(Image credit: AIP)

(Image credit: AIP)

I was tipped off into reading Michelle Francl’s excellent essay [3] “Sex and the Citadel of Science” by one of my classmates at the 2011 Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. Dr. Francl is a Professor of Chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, which happens to be my alma mater.

Francl discusses the various hypotheses for why women are underrepresented in quantitative sciences.

1)     “The Larry Summers Argument” – Women are not as good as men at math and science.

2)     Women are not interested in science.

3)     Society pushes women out of science, and those who remain are viewed with suspicion.

Fortunately for those of us with ladybrains, hypothesis number one has been debunked. It’s based on the data that, in the US, boys are more likely to receive the top scores on standardized math tests. Boys and girls may roughly have the same average score, but more boys will be at the very top. And only those at the very top will be poised to start scientific careers – the girls are edged out.

But analysis of more data proves otherwise: while these statistics are factual in the US, in many other countries women and men show equivalent math aptitudes. The female brain is authorized to excel.

(We are clearly doing something a little wrong in the US, but this doesn’t explain on its own the dearth of women.)

Francl addresses the “lack of interest” argument head on. In the US, only 0.73% of students major in chemistry, men and women. In an absolute sense, no one is interested in chemistry; both sexes are discouraged. It just happens that women are discouraged a bit more. Thus the onus is not exclusively on women to get more fired up about the subject, or for chemistry teachers to try to encourage girls disproportionately.

The onus is on departments to be better educators. These statistics change when you put students in a small, supportive environment. At Bryn Mawr, about 4% of students major in chemistry, a sixfold increase. Bryn Mawr could be dismissed as an anomaly due to the single-sex setting, but the hard science percentages for men and women generally improve at smaller institutions. Clearly, on average, something is discouraging ALL chemistry students, most of whom aren’t lucky enough to be at a small college.

I’m saving point 3 for a later post. It deserves it. The brief answer: this is true, but not in the ways you might expect.

Francl goes on to expound about other stuff that might keep women out of science. It might be the little things, or the big things, but mostly, it might literally be the THINGS! Conference chairs, lab benches, and blackboards are designed for the average man. Women are often trained to like pretty, colorful things from birth, and men are trained to like neutral palettes or “boy” colors. The auto repair shop-like décor of a physics lab might turn women off in a powerful, albeit unconscious way. This is not to imply that women are inherently superficial or that beauty should matter. It’s just that we all carry societal baggage with us, sometimes whether we mean to or not.

Which brings me to the subject of the bathroom. An inside chuckle among female physicists: will there be a restroom we can use? I worked in a building during grad school where only every other floor had a women’s bathroom. It didn’t inconvenience me – I was luckily stationed on a floor that had one. We generally laughed it off, but should we have? Just because the building was built in the dark ages does not excuse the problem. If such basic, obvious needs are being ignored, what about the nonobvious ones that also matter?

Solving the “woman problem” in science will take time, but let’s try and make it less than 70 years. I’d rather not be in my grave before it’s over.


[2]What’s unclear is if they will be promoted at equal rates as their male colleagues. The frequency of female full professors is currently around 1 in 10.



5 comments on “Encouraging (And Keeping) Women In Physics

  1. Evelyn Lamb (@evelynjlamb)
    January 17, 2013

    I spend a decent amount of time at the school where my husband works, and until last year, they only had a women’s restroom on one floor of the four-floor math building. Last year, they hired a very good female mathematician with tenure (shamefully, only the 2nd or 3rd time they’ve had a female mathematician with tenure-ever), and I think she insisted that they add another women’s restroom. It’s a small thing, but it sure does feel unfriendly to have to walk up and down several flights of stairs when the men have a restroom on every floor.
    Math conferences are one of the few places I go where the men’s room often has a line and the women’s room doesn’t. Some of us ladies shared a chuckle one time when we were at a conference (that wasn’t a women in math conference) and there was a line for our restroom. We don’t experience that often.

  2. And good for her. I think a lot of women won’t complain about such things because they’ll be perceived as caring more about such a “small thing” than their work. Though I disagree about it being a small thing….if you’re at work 250 days a year, that’s at least 1000 stair climbs every year just to fulfill a basic need. It’s a need, like breathing, that everyone has to fulfill to go on and be productive.

    Also, I am shameless and will use the men’s stalls (as they are usually not in use) if I am at a particularly crowded, non-physics event. We clearly need to come up with a better solution to restrooms in general! Maybe not Ally McBeal-style, but something that a) makes wait time equal for all, b) gives adequate privacy, and c) stops making bathroom use a statement of gender identity.

  3. Evelyn Lamb (@evelynjlamb)
    January 18, 2013

    That was an interesting read. Gender-neutral bathrooms weren’t really on my radar, but it is definitely a problem for some people. I have seen restrooms where there is a common sink area surrounded by several small single-stall rooms. That seems like a good solution.
    The intermediate solution before they replaced the men’s restroom on the 4th floor of the math building with a single-stall gender neutral, handicap-accessible restroom was that they just installed a lock on the men’s room and made it a single-user restroom. It was weird to go into a restroom with two stalls, a urinal, and a sink and have it be a single-user restroom.

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2013 by in Research and tagged , , .
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