APS News

Women in Physics Make Modest Gains, While Minorities Remain Level

Over the last 30 years, the percentage of physics Ph.D.s awarded to women annually has risen from three percent to 12 percent, but the percentages of African-Americans and Hispanics receiving Ph.D.s has remained essentially level at 1 percent each, according to recent data collected by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Speakers at a Wednesday afternoon session, at the March Meeting, on women and minorities in physics discussed possible reasons why the percentage for minorities in physics has remained stagnant, considered some factors for the improvement in the numbers of women, and discussed how changes in affirmative action policies might affect the numbers of women and minorities in physics.

According to Roman Czujko, director of AIP's Employment and Education Statistics Division, 42 percent of high school students taking physics are women, a dramatic increase from a decade ago. Unfortunately, this percentage drops significantly at the university level: only 28 percent of students taking introductory physics courses are women. Sixteen percent of bachelor's degrees in physics are currently earned by women, with an equal number earning degrees in engineering. In contrast, slightly more than half of all life science degrees, and about 48 percent of mathematics degrees, are earned by women.

At the graduate level, 12 percent of all Ph.Ds in physics are earned by women, with engineering again showing a similar growth rate and life sciences degrees earned by women increasing by about 40 percent. While the percentage of women physics Ph.D.s has shown only a gradual increase, the number of Ph.D.s awarded annually has grown by more than 60 percent. Still, half of those are foreign citizens; thus, while the number of resident women with Ph.D.s has doubled, the number of foreign women earning Ph.D.s has nearly quadrupled over the last 12 years.

Czujko finds the data comparing women in physics to women in other fields particularly significant. "One of the reasons that's often given for why there are so few women in physics is that they don't have the requisite math skills," he said, pointing to the percentage of mathematics degrees held by women as a clear refutation of that theory. Another common misconception is that women don't go into physics because they lack the mechanical skills necessary to build experimental equipment. But nearly four times as many women have Ph.D.s in engineering as in physics.

Still another explanation is that women lack the single-minded ambition and will to succeed. Yet more than 5,000 women endure the stress of pre-med studies to become M.D.s each year, with over 16,000 women earning law degrees. "In short, there are plenty of women who are showing ambition and will to succeed, as well as math ability, and yet physics continues to draw very few, although there have been some improvements," said Czujko.

More encouraging is the data collected with regard to the percentage of women physics faculty at Ph.D.-granting institutions, which has risen to six percent in the last decade, compared to three percent in 1986 and 2.7 percent 20 years ago. The proportion of faculties with no women on staff was 55 percent ten years ago. Now the proportion is down to 35 percent.

Also showing marked improvement are the kinds of positions now being held by women faculty. "At the assistant professor rank, women are being hired at about their availability, which is 12 percent," said Czujko of the results. "In other ranks women are being hired at below their availability. A decade ago, that trend was reversed, with much higher employment for women in short-term, temporary kinds of positions."

In contrast to the modest improvements in the number of women in physics, traditionally under-represented minorities have made only minimal gains. Approximately 4.5 percent of bachelor's degrees in physics were earned by African-Americans in 1994, compared to three percent in 1984. Hispanics fared only slightly better, earning roughly 2.5 percent of all bachelor's degrees in physics in 1994, compared to less than one percent ten years ago.

The percentage of minorities with bachelor's degrees in other fields isn't significantly higher. For example, in 1992, African-Americans earned nine percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science, seven percent of those in business, six percent in mathematics, and 5 percent each in engineering, education, and other physical sciences. Hispanics earned four percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science, two percent in other physical sciences, and three percent each in business, mathematics, engineering and education.

Minorities fare even worse at the Ph.D. level, with such low percentages that Czujko opted to represent the data in terms of raw numbers. African-Americans earned a mere 11 Ph.D.s in physics in 1994, the same as in 1984, and 11 Ph.D.s in mathematics, up from four Ph.D.s ten years ago. However, they showed marked improvement in other fields, earning 34 chemistry Ph.D.s and 54 engineering Ph.D.s, compared with 23 and 15 Ph.D.s, respectively, in 1984. Hispanics earned 31 Ph.D.s in physics in 1994, up significantly from 14 in 1984, and also showed modest gains in chemistry and engineering, earning 59 and 66 Ph.D.s in 1994, respectively. However, Hispanics earned only 13 Ph.Ds. in mathematics in 1994, about the same as a decade earlier.

Interestingly, where a minority student chooses to study seems to have a tremendous impact on his or her likelihood of becoming a physicist. Of the 152 Ph.D.s in physics granted to African-Americans in the last 20 years, 20 were from Stanford University, with Howard University and MIT ranking a close second with 14 Ph.D.s each (see related "factoid," page 6). MIT also granted 9 of the 250 physics Ph.D.s earned by Hispanics in the last 20 years, with Penn State University, University of California-Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin accounting for 8 physics Ph.D.s each.

According to James Gates, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland who earned his Ph.D. from MIT in 1977, it is no accident that so many minority physicists came out of those institutions. Achieving a certain critical mass in the department and the presence of role models and mentors to help both women and minority students through the pipeline are two things that he believes contributed to their success in attracting them to the field of physics.

The commitment to diversity at these institutions is, in fact, what enables minority students to flourish there. "In the biological world, it's very simple to see why diversity is important; that is what allows a group of organisms to survive in a new environment," said Gates. "Since science is about freeing ourselves from unconscious assumptions in order to find the answers to questions, we in fact impede the progress of science by restricting it to certain groups of people."

Most of the speakers also commented on the growing backlash against affirmative action policies in the U.S., made more critical by the current funding climate and tight job market for physicists. Joe Martinez, a physicist with Basic Energy Sciences, distinguished between "Affirmative Action" with a capital "A" and "affirmative action" with a lowercase "a". He feels that hiring is often based on social reasons, such as personal contacts, rather than merit, and cited a case where a former professor in one department made a phone call to the department manager on behalf of a former student and close acquaintance. The student was subsequently hired.

"I don't really criticize this informal method of hiring, but why isn't it applied universally?" said Martinez, classifying the incident as lowercase affirmative action. "Hiring and promotion based solely on personal contacts must no longer be accepted. This, combined with granting equal opportunities to minorities and women, will not let one side of the field pull down another, but rather to pull one side of the field up to the same level as the other."

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin