Women in physics

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.


  1. colnago80 says

    I once read that actress Jill St John, who is probably the only woman that Henry Kissinger ever dated that has a higher IQ then he does, started out majoring in marine biology at UCLA but soon quit the program after being hit on by teaching assistants, professors, and fellow students. Maybe guys majoring in science are hornier then guys majoring in the humanities.

  2. says

    Actually, I think that there are fewer women to hit on is a better explanation. I mean, if you’re majoring in science and there are only a few girls to hit on vs. a guy majoring in humanities where there are many more girls to hit on…the guy in humanities can’t possibly hit on all the girls (and probably wouldn’t want to either — preferring to just hit on those he deemed “hottest”) where the guy in science perhaps can. Or, if he can’t, there are enough other guys in the field to ensure that most of the women will have a guy hitting on them.

    That, I think, is the sad reality. I went to an engineering college that had 1 girl for every 5 guys. Even if just one out of those 5 guys is horny, well…I think the math pretty much speaks for itself.

  3. Chiroptera says

    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.

    Years ago when I was in the physics program at CU Boulder, there was a woman undergraduate who complained about this very thing. Someone in the group with whom she studied had a habit of making comments that the reason she made such good grades is because she wore short skirts. (For the record, the reason she got good grades was because she was intelligent and worked hard.) We pointed out to her that those comments went against the sexual harassment policies the University had at the time, although she choose not to pursue that route.

    At a previous institution at which I taught (the major flag ship public university in that state), my unscientific general impression of my students were that the men had in general slightly more “natural talent” at mathematics (I assume due to the differences in attitudes in at the primary and secondary school levels), but the women tended to have better grades because they worked pretty hard rather than trying to “coast.”

    At the institution at which I am now (a small regional college), I don’t see much in the way of differences between men and women in ability in the GE courses, although my general impression is that the women are working much, much harder. In our math majors, there seem to be more women who impress me with their abilities than men.

    Just some very anecdotal impressions that I have had, for what it’s worth.

  4. doublereed says

    The Petrie Multiplier is relevant to the numbers problem. Basically, even if both sexes are equally sexist, and there is 1 girl for every 5 guys, then the girl will experience 25x more sexism than the guys.

  5. Dunc says

    Thanks for the link, that’s fascinating. One of those things that seems like it should be obvious in retrospect.

  6. invivoMark says

    It amazes me how far behind the equality curve fields like physics still are. The numbers in biology and life sciences tend to be very close to even in my experience. My department is very close to 50:50, as are most departments I interact with. Three out of the four members of my thesis committee are women, and every one of them is way smarter than I am.

    Men still outpace women in leadership positions, salary, rank, funding, etc., but that gap is closing fast. My graduate program’s director is a woman, and she is doing a far better job of it than her male predecessor.

    I do wonder why biology is equalizing so much faster than physics. As far as I can tell, they’re equally challenging fields.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’ve been out of physics for more than 20 years, but saw women undergrads and grads have a really hard time with faculty and male students in the 70s and 80s. Not so much sexual harassment (although there was at least one horrible case I was aware of) as a constant drumbeat that they didn’t belong.

    Some discussion here.

  8. Trebuchet says

    I went to an engineering college that had 1 girl for every 5 guys. Even if just one out of those 5 guys is horny, well…I think the math pretty much speaks for itself.

    1 girl for every five guys? That’s orders of magnitude more females than I had in my engineering school in the late ’60’s. Infinitely more, in fact, since there were exactly zero females in my department.

    Things like this change slowly, but I think they are changing. Before I retired from an engineering department in a major aerospace company, at least half of the first-level supervisors, plus the 2nd and 3rd level managers, were women. All of them younger than me. On the other hand, all of them were white women, despite an over-representation of Asians (and under-representation of Blacks) in the department.

  9. Mano Singham says

    I think it is related to the level of mathematics involved. Until the gender gap in mathematics is resolved, physics will lag behind.

  10. smrnda says

    How is the gender gap in mathematics doing? I haven’t seen a lot of statistics, but I do remember being the only female student in some graduate level maths courses, but I note that the composition of the departments I was in just a short time ago have changed a lot to be far more equitable.

    On the ‘innate talent’ versus work issue. I think innate talent is mostly an American myth that’s the result of our practice of testing students young and then putting them in different tracks and then, unsurprisingly, the gap remaining consistent. Responsibility and dedication seem to be much more relevant, and girls and women may be doing better in that department. From my experience, I have known quite a few men who did poorly because they played too many videogames instead of doing schoolwork, so perhaps the gender bias in games being more aimed at a male audience could be a factor? I’d love to see some research there.

  11. Kimz_Sendai says

    On an equally anecdotal level, as a physics PhD and EE grad, I am applying to tenure track jobs and have been getting interviews, and at EVERY interview I have had so far I have been asked gendered and potentially illegal questions (which I am clearly not pursuing because I want a job).

    At one Canadian school I was asked about my partner/plans for children by no fewer than 6 of the 8 members of the hiring committee.

  12. Mano Singham says

    It is really strange that they still do this. I have been on the interviewing side and we are always told that we should never, ever ask questions like that.

  13. Kimz_Sendai says

    It’s rarely during the formal interview part of the day. It’s typically during the ‘lab tours’ or the ‘meet and greet’ breakfast or lunch or dinner, where I’m still totally being interviewed, but it’s more informal. I suspect that they have been told – and just figure that it only applies to the formal hour where you sit down as a panel and grill the candidate about how they plan to integrate into the department.

    That said, at the Canadian university, one of the members of the hiring committee (who I was told was the ‘representative of the dean’) asked me the question during the one-on-one session where he was explaining the timing of tenure-track milestones, which was a pretty formal conversation, so I don’t even know.

  14. Mano Singham says

    I can see that but the people should know that those questions are taboo at all times. I know to never raise those things at the lunches or other ‘social’ events. I suspect that people know this but they still do it.

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