Recruiting and keeping women in physics (Blogging from the AAPT)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 27, 2009

This session is about the state of affairs regarding women in physics and how we can address it.

Well, no surprise, there’s still a big disparity between the number of men and women in physics — we lose women from physics at every major transition — from HS to college, college to graduate school — and entering academia.  About 1/3 of HS physics teachers are women, but only 6% of full physics professors are women.

43% of married female physicists are married to physicists, but 6% of married male physicists are married to other physicists.  So, women are — half the time — trying to deal with a trailing spouse!

What about in the classroom?   Boys get higher grades in HS physics and women in college tend to earn higher grades than their male counterparts.  Women’s SAT scores, however, underpredict their grades in college.  In physics, however, women earn lower grades than men.  This appears to be affected by whether the professor is female, and whether the students had physics in HS (both improve women’s grades).  So, whereas women do better than men overall in college, that’s not true in physics! And they’re just not participating in physics to the same level as men.

This speaker claimed that the statement that women prefer interactive engagement techniques is actually not supported by research.  It’s true that poor teaching makes both men and women leave the sciences.  Does good teaching help?  Lorenzo, Crouch and Mazur (2006) reduced the gender gap (on the Force Concept Inventory) by using interactive engagement.  However, at Boulder (Pollock, Finkelstein and Kost, 2007) they found that this depended on the instructor, Jennifer Docktor found there was no instructor effect, and Eric Anderson found that interactive engagement didn’t help the gap.  Help!  It seems to be much more complicated than just “interactivity helps women learn.”  The jury is still out.

Ted Hodapp from the APS explained that women are actually doing pretty well in physics, though this is not true of minorities.  These are results from the APS Gender Equity conference.  Female PhD’s increase by 4% per year.  Hey, great, it’s going up!  Not by much, however, this isn’t true of minorities, for whom the curve is flat.  But only some people are getting to that point in the first place.  “Focus on elementary!” waved one woman from the back.  That’s where we’re losing women, is at the 4th and 5th grade.

The good news though is that women who DO finish their PhD are just as likely to be hired as men are.

In terms of Bachelor’s degrees, most science and engineering fields have seen a dramatic increase in the number of majors… but not physics (which is pretty flat.)

The results of the Gender Equity conference are numerous — you can download the report at the link.  You can also sign up to get the Gazette — a newsletter of the committee for the status of women in physics.

Some ideas are:

  • Create a supportive climate for women, including transparency in policies and a “zero tolerance” policy for offensive comments
  • Nominate women for prizes
  • Stop the tenure clock for family leave

But see the report for more, those are just the ones I wrote down!

The nice thing about this session, I must say, was a great amount of thoughtful discussion and interjections from the audience, who is clearly informed and engaged in this topic.


Rhett July 28, 2009 at 2:13 pm

I find the statistic that 43% of female physicists are married to physicists but this is only true for 6% of males to be interesting.

Why would it be like this? I have no idea.

sciencegeekgirl July 28, 2009 at 6:00 pm

I’ve heard this statistic before, Rhett, and remember the explanation being something about the social norm that women have to marry someone of equal or greater occupational status. There’s not much more “up” to go from “physicist” (aren’t I smug?) so they tend to marry other physicists. And perhaps more male physicists would marry female physicists but… there aren’t that many female physicists! After all, it’s probably the case that the 6% of male faculty cited are married to the 43% of female physicists cited. Same numbers, different percentages due to lower numbers of female physicists!

Assaf July 29, 2009 at 11:20 am

Marrying another physicist is … well … unappealing to me. I think it’s much more interesting having someone who’s different. Other sciences are ok. As for ‘not much going up’, just wait until your biologist wife publishes that Nature while you’re stuck in Journal of Optics A, then we’ll see :).

Apart from that, I’m against any form of affirmative action. Women should be treated the same as men, no more no less. “To shield the world of folly is to create a world of fools.”

No offensive comments? Great, works both ways. Physicists (male and female) are either too shy or too geeky to make any, anyway. Stop the tenure clock? Why just for women – stop it for men who want to stay at home, too. By stopping it just for women you’re actually forcing them to stay at home instead of the man. Nominate women for prizes? That’s offensive. A good physicist is a good physicist, does it matter if it’s a he or a she? I find it infuriating to favor a person based on their sex, rather than professional merit.

Doing these things is like printing money – it causes “inflation”. You think you can change reality at a point without affecting the whole, but you can’t. Print too much money and you devalue it. Promote women via affirmative action and you’ll just end up with lots of lower quality physicists. You’ve got to let society change at its own pace and, above all, remain fair.

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