APS News

Focus on Committees

Problems of Women and Minorities Receive Special Attention

By Richard M. Todaro


Among the various committees of the American Physical Society, there are two dedicated to increasing the participation of those groups who have traditionally been vastly under-represented in physics, namely, women and minorities.

The Committee on the Status of Women in Physics is devoted to the twin goals of improving the climate for women who are in physics and improving the academic pipeline through which women enter physics. The Committee on Minorities works on increasing the number of minorities in physics. Minorities include African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, three groups who historically have each accounted for less than one percent of the total population of physics.

The nine-member Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) oversees a variety of programs.

The Site Visit Program enlists a team of volunteer women physicists to visit a college or university to assess the climate for women in the school's physics department. Barbara Jones, current CSWP chair, explained that the team consists of current and past CSWP members, as well as other women physicists. "At the invitation of the department, the team spends a day or two at the site and interviews different groups - undergraduate students, graduate students, and the department chair, as well as other members of the school's administration." Students are asked to fill out specially-designed questionnaires ahead of time; to encourage them to express themselves freely, the results of the survey are shared only with the visiting team and the CSWP.

Jones said the three goals of the Site Visit Program are to identify a set of generic problems commonly experienced by women physicists, to intervene to solve many of these problems, and to address problems specific to individual physics departments.

Upon completion of the survey, the team provides a list of recommendations for improvement to the department.

Jones listed several of the generic problems that are often encountered by women in the male-dominated world of physics. Among these are feelings of being "invisible professionally" to their male colleagues. Other women physicists feel that they aren't being treated fairly either in graduate school or subsequently in their professional situations. Another, deeper problem is that some women feel physics is taught in an "aggressive" style that is not conducive to their way of thinking and learning.

"In industry, one often finds that proportionally there are more women who come in with just BS degrees. So, of the small number of women who are there employment is often disproportionately weighted toward those who are in a more service-oriented role, " said Jones, who is a research scientist and manager at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

"In physics, for many things that involve being a true leader of your research project, you need a Ph.D.," she said. "If you want to be a technical leader of a project, it is better to have a Master's degree or a Ph.D."

Other programs that the CSWP undertakes include co-sponsoring a summer internship program with IBM for undergraduate female students in physics. Between four and nine students each year are selected as part of the APS/IBM Research Internship for Undergraduate Women by a selection committee that includes one CSWP member. The students spend the summer working at one of three IBM research sites in the United States, including the Almaden site, the Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and the Austin Research Laboratory in Austin, Texas.

"A goal of the program is to encourage women to go on to graduate school in their technical field," Jones said. "It has been quite successful."

Twice a year, CSWP publishes the Gazette newsletter which features updates on CSWP activities and programs, book reviews, reports and articles on programs designed to increase the participation of girls and women in science. WIPHYS, an electronic list serve which reaches several hundred subscribers serves as a means to exchange advice and discuss issues of interest to women in physics.

CSWP encourages nominations for the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award which recognizes outstanding achievement by a young woman physicist within 10 years of receiving her PhD. Now in its sixteenth year, the MGM Award honors the memory of Maria Goeppert-Mayer by encouraging young women scientists who demonstrate outstanding potential at an early stage and carries with it a monetary award plus a travel allowance to give lectures at four institutions and the March meeting of the APS.

At the APS annual meetings, CSWP sponsors a variety of events including an invited session, a networking breakfast (with FIAP), and a reception (with COM). These events offer valuable opportunities for women to socialize and to network, as well as to hear technical talks.

Like the CSWP, the nine-member Committee on Minorities (COM) seeks to increase the representation in the field of physics of groups that have traditionally been greatly under-represented. In the case of the COM, those are African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

COM has its own Site Visit Program to physics departments at academic institutions in order to "assess the climate for minorities in the department, and to make recommendations to improve the climate for minority faculty and students," according to the COM web page.

COM also serves as the selection committee for the American Physical Society's Corporate-Sponsored Scholarship for Minority Undergraduate Students Who Major in Physics. The scholarship program funds 20 to 25 new students each year. As part of the program, the chair of the departments where students are attending identifies a mentor - a faculty member from the department - who is willing to provide guidance and advice to the student. The COM keeps tabs on the students, as well, to ensure their progress through school. This mentoring aspect is viewed as key to retaining minority students in physics.

"The Committee on Minorities recognizes that mentoring minority students is very important in their retention in physics and is taking a hands-on approach to mentoring their minority scholarship students," said Arlene Modeste-Knowles, the outreach programs administrator of the APS Education and Outreach Department.

Modeste-Knowles cited a 1997 APS study showing that 82 of the 164 scholarship recipients completed a physics degree while another 36 completed some other science degree. Thus, fully 72 percent of the degree recipients earned a degree in a hard science.

The COM also bestows annually the prestigious Edward A. Bouchet Award upon a minority physicist who has made "remarkable contributions to physics." Named for the first African American to receive a Ph.D. at an American academic institution, Edward Bouchet earned his Ph.D. in physics from Yale in 1874.

Michael D. Williams of Clark Atlanta University is the new COM chair. "One of the things we have to work at is getting physics profiles up in our respective communities in order to make it appealing," Williams said. "The challenge is to start early enough to capture the interest."

A variety of other CSWP and COM programs help raise the awareness of women and minorities in physics. There are women's and minorities speakers lists, containing 366 and 83 names respectively, who are available to give talks and colloquia at US colleges and universities. The lists are indexed by field and by state. Modest travel grants are provided by APS to fund the program, which is designed to expand the opportunity for physics departments to invite colloquium/seminar speakers who can serve as role models for women and minority undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.

There is also a Roster of Women and Minorities, containing the names and qualifications of over 3100 women and 900 minority physicists. Employers in industry, government, and academia frequently use the Roster to identify names of prospective women or minorities as part of a job search.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette