APS News

Small Inequalities Can Influence Women's Careers

By Ernie Tretkoff

At the APS April meeting, speakers in a session on keeping women and girls in science addressed reasons for the persistently low numbers of women in physics and what physics departments can do to become more "female friendly."

With the Project Access study Gerhard Sonnert of Harvard University investigated the careers of women and men who received prestigious postdoctoral fellowships. The study covered women in many stages of their careers, from just after post doc to nearing retirement, trying to find small inequalities that might add up to account for the low numbers of women in physics.

Sonnert's study noticed that these women did not drop out of physics at a higher rate than men did, but they cited different reasons for leaving the field. Women were far more likely to say they left physics for family reasons.

The study found some possible differences in the collaboration patterns of women and men. Sonnert noted that men were more likely to seek out colleagues and self-promote, while women were less inclined to engage in such shmoozing and showing off. Some women also tended to be more perfectionistic, producing fewer papers, but perhaps higher quality.

None of the survey respondents said that women think differently from men, and marriage and parenthood appeared to have no effect on the careers of those who stayed in physics.

Sonnert also compared the GPA of women in physics with that of men, and found that women consistently had a higher GPA, possibly suggesting a difference in the self-confidence of women and men. However, departments with more women faculty had more women students, and those women had less of a GPA advantage over their male counterparts.

Although the Project Access study was carried out in the late 1980's, and there have been some positive changes since then, Sonnert said, progress has been slow.

Barbara Whitten of Colorado College discussed her visits to nine undergraduate physics departments that grew out of her work on the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics site visit program. Her study focused on undergraduate colleges. She compared the five schools in her study that produced a high proportion of women graduates with the four that were more typical of the national average.

Whitten found no one major difference between the successful and typical departments; rather, she said she noticed lots of little differences. The departments that produced more women graduates were more friendly, open, and welcoming to everyone, and did a good job of reaching out to introductory students. Opportunities for student-faculty research helped keep women in physics, as did mentoring. In Whitten's study, the successful departments did not necessarily have more women faculty, or more programs specifically aimed at women.

Some students in Whitten's study said they liked the "family atmosphere" in their departments, especially those students from the two historically black colleges Whitten visited. Historically black colleges have a record of turning out a high proportion of women physics graduates.

Whitten pointed out that physics lags behind other sciences in terms of participation of women. For instance, while less than 25% of physics bachelor's degrees are awarded to women, 40% of mathematics bachelor's degree recipients are women. This implies that "whatever it is that keeps women out of physics, it's not the math," said Whitten.

Patricia Rankin of the University of Colorado, Boulder emphasized the importance of strong leadership in keeping women in science. She reported on a program at her university called LEAP (Leadership Education for Advancement and Promotion), which aims to increase the number of women in leadership positions in science and engineering. Rankin said she believes there are still some small biases against women in science, and even a small bias can have a large effect. These biases can be hard to avoid, she said, but even small changes in a department can help.


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