APS News

APS Views

By Katharine B. Gebbie, Chair, APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics

The Committee on the Status of Women in Physics was founded 24 years ago to address the production, retention, and career development of women physicists and to gather and maintain data on women in physics in support of these objectives. To this end, the Committee sponsors a diverse array of projects including the quarterly CSWP Gazette, which has a circulation of more than 4,000; a Roster of Women in Physics to assist institutions in finding qualified women candidates for job openings; the CSWP/AAPT site visit project, aimed at improving the climate for women in university physics departments; WIPHYS, an Internet listserver for women in physics with more than 600 subscribers; and a new project to compile an archive of the Contributions of Women to Physics 1898-1998, to demonstrate that women, as well as men, have been major players in the scientific endeavor. And, the number and percentage of women in physics have indeed increased.

Yet in the present job market, the question may reasonably be asked, Why encourage women to make careers in physics? Is it fair to them? Will they not simply swell the numbers of unemployed and underemployed physicists? J. Robert Schrieffer, APS President, gave the following answer to these questions:

"...We believe that our goal of advancing and diffusing the knowledge of physics is best served if the profession draws upon the widest possible spectrum of talented individuals. We are therefore committed to removing barriers that limit the participation of women in physics and to making available to women the same range of career choices traditionally open to men. Women have the right, the need and the talent to compete for these opportunities..."

(excerpt from the April 1996 Physics and Society newsletter)

Members of CSWP have also addressed the question of why we are encouraging women into physics when jobs are scarce. Here are three views:

"The health of a field is determined by the quality of people who go into it, and physics cannot achieve and maintain excellence without drawing the best and the brightest from all segments of society. Thus an increased female presence has the potential to improve the quality of the physics workforce. If we believe that the field of physics is (or should be) a meritocracy, and if making the field more open to the entry of bright women were to reduce opportunities for some men, it would presumably be the mediocre who find themselves squeezed out. Surely the reasons why women should be encouraged to enter physics are the same as why men should be so encouraged-intellectual satisfaction, and an opportunity to make a difference in the world by the use of one's talents and energy. Why should men have all the fun?"

-Laurie McNeil
Gordon Gray Professor of Physics and Astronomy
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"The next generation of physical scientists, we know from our research, has grown up, been educated, and wishes to live in a co-ed profession. Young people are thoroughly co-ed in their perceptions of the field. They are the future. And their future includes women as equal partners at home and in the workplace. Therefore, the notion that women should (or could) be "discouraged" from entering physics flies in the face of women's abilities and ambitions and of the needs of the field. The problem isn't oversupply; it's insufficient new job creation in physics. In my view women are as likely to contribute to new job creation as men."

-Sheila Tobias
Co-author of "Rethinking Science as a Career: Perceptions and Realities in the Physical Sciences," (Research Corporation, 1995)

"No one should be encouraged to "go into" physics. You should pursue a career in physics when you are called to it - when your love for the beauty of this way of looking at the world makes other choices impossible. It is not supposed to be easy. Except for a few extraordinary times in history, it hasn't been. But everyone should be encouraged to explore physics, to learn about it, and to have the chance to learn to love it. The wrong that the CSWP tries to set right is that at every level of our educational and professional structure, there are obstacles that make it more difficult for women than for men to have this opportunity. If we can remove these barriers, then more women will be called to physics careers. Indeed, this may make it more difficult for everyone who is called. At the same time, however, I believe that new opportunities for careers in physics will open up. This is a critical time for the future of science in the United States."

-Howard Georgi
Harvard University

If science is to thrive, we must make it our goal to achieve a scientifically literate society, a population that understands and values the contributions that science can make to our national well-being. Women are half that population. Only when women see that women are participating fully in the scientific endeavor-as researchers in the laboratory, as scientific leaders, and as policy makers-will they feel equal partners in a technological society.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin