APS News

Women Physicists Explore Survival Skills at March Meeting

Photo credit to Jessica Clark. Mildred Dresselhaus addresses the workshop.Looking around at a physics conference like the March Meeting, it is not difficult to see that there are not many women attendees. Indeed, it has been no secret that women are severely under-represented in physics. To address this issue, the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP), for the first time, hosted a special workshop on the Survival Skills for Successful Women Physicists in conjunction with the March Meeting. The half-day workshop was held on Sunday, March 17 and was chaired by APS Executive Officer Judy Franz and Dongqi Li of Argonne National Laboratory. A total of 42 people, evenly distributed in all levels from senior faculties to graduate and undergraduate students, attended the workshop.

Four highly respected women from the physics community gave invited talks in the first part and served as the panelists in the second part. Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT, Kristl Hathaway of ONR, Barbara Jones of IBM Almaden, and Beverly Hartline of ANL addressed a variety of issues such as establishing scientific identity and developing a successful career in research, finding funding for research programs, balancing family and career, and advancing professionally to achieve ambitions. The second part featured a professional trainer, Sandy Shullman of Executive Development Group, who led a lively discussion on leadership and gender issues in scientific settings. Both thepanelists and the participants were actively involved by drawing from their personal experiences.

As the percentage of women Bachelors and PhDs in physics has slowly increases to 21% and 13% respectively (American Institute of Physics data for the year 2000), women still disproportionately leave physics at all levels, which is often referred to as the "leaky pipeline" issue. As a result, the percentage of women physics faculty at Ph.D. granting institutions remains in single digits, according to Dresselhaus. While the reasons for the leaky pipeline are complicated and deserve further discussion, the isolation experienced by many women physicists can hinder their career development. As their male counterparts learn the rules of the game from informal mentoring and networking with other male colleagues, women often find it harder to find the same information, or to find a role model to follow.

APS President-elect Myriam Sarachik chats with Tineke Thio of the NEC Research Institute at the reception following the survival skills workshop. Photo credit to Jessica ClarkAfter the workshop, most of the speakers and participants continued their discussions at the CSWP/COM joint reception. The responses to the workshop were overwhelmingly favorable and enthusiastic. From the evaluation forms filled by the participants, 80% of them found it "extremely helpful" and about 20% found it "might be useful someday". Nobody responded that they thought it was "of little or no value." Some described the workshop as "exceptionally relevant and useful" and praised the choice of "excellent speakers." Another commented that "it was useful to all groups" from students to senior faculty members.

The participants said that they took away information that will be of great value as they continue in their careers, and they are eager to recommend the workshop to the others. They also suggested increasing the discussion time, which will be incorporated into the future programs. To benefit the broader community, CSWP will put the talks onto their web site. Due to the success of this first workshop and the strong demand for future ones, CSWP has decided to continue them in coming years, alternating between the March and April Meetings, as part of the CSWP regular program. The next one is scheduled for the 2003 April meeting. Anyone interested in making suggestions on topics and speakers, or volunteer to speak, please contact Cynthia Keppel of Hampton University at keppel@jlab.org or Dongqi Li of Argonne National Lab at dongqi@anl.gov.