Physics tends to be highly under-represented when it comes to women, with them comprising only 13% of faculty in degree-granting institutions. There are many suggested reasons for this but one heartening sign is that physics department faculty and professional organizations have recognized that this deficit does not reflect well on us and have made concerted efforts to increase interest in physics among young girls and to encourage more women to major in the subject and to pursue it as a career.
But it is a fact that many physics departments at universities do not have even a single woman faculty member and this, by itself, can be a problem in encouraging college women to choose that major because that fact, by itself, may be taken a sign that women are discriminated against. But is the large number of male-only physics departments a symptom of discrimination?? Not necessarily, at least on a local level. Toni Feder points to a study that says that given the number of women in the field as a whole, the number of departments with no women at all are what one would expect simply from the statistics.
More than a third of all US college and university physics departments have no women on their faculty. Does that mean those departments are biased against women? No. Do departments that do have women on their faculty provide a better atmosphere for women? Not necessarily.
After hearing one too many times that physics departments with no female professors are unfriendly to women, Rachel Ivie and Susan White of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics decided to test the assumption of hiring biases by crunching the numbers.
From the statistics, it should be no surprise that if you don’t have a lot of women in the pool and you have a lot of small departments, you will have a lot of all-male departments. In fact, for bachelor’s-only departments, the simulations match reality—47% of those departments are all-male. But significantly more PhD-granting departments have females than if faculty members were randomly distributed: In reality, 8% of departments have no women, whereas the simulation average is 12% (see figure). Says White, “Statistics can’t prove anything, but this does suggest to me that departments are trying to diversify.”
So the problem lies with the relatively small pool of women in the field and that is where attention needs to be paid. It is the broader perception of physics that is the problem and not necessarily local pockets of discrimination.
Oddly enough, in my personal experience, there has been a peculiar age inversion in attitudes towards women in physics. I almost never hear of male physics faculty or members of physics professional organizations (usually older people) express the sentiment that women cannot or should not do physics. Women, because of their under-representation, can and do experience untoward gender-based attention and actions that are offensive but that arises from a different cause and not out of a sense that they are somehow inferior physicists. That kind of behavior is usually the relic of the sexist attitudes that my generation grew up with and are hard to shake off. But I never hear disparaging comments about women’s ability to do physics and I do hear genuine concern about the need to encourage more women into the field.
But I have had female physics majors tell me that it is not the faculty but some male fellow students who act as if they should not be in the field, even though very often it is the women who are the most able students. The latter fact is not surprising. Given the reputation that physics has as a male-dominated field, it is usually the most determined and driven female students who go into it and so one should not be surprised that they do so well, and the negative feelings towards them by some of their male counterparts may be due to simple jealousy.