APS News

Women Who Choose Physics Love It, AIP Survey Discovers.

Women in physics around the world say they face negative attitudes towards women in science, but they are also passionate and excited about physics, according to a recent AIP Statistical Research Center report, titled Women Physicists Speak Again.

More than 1350 women from over 70 countries answered the survey, which was a follow-up to a similar survey conducted in 2002 in conjunction with the first IUPAP International Conference of Women in Physics.

While not a representative sample of women in physics, the survey responses give a picture of the challenges women face in physics and their attitudes about their chosen field.

The survey asked women about their education and careers, and about issues that concern women physicists, such as discrimination, marriage and childcare, and funding. The study compared responses from women in developed and developing countries. Unsurprisingly, women in developing countries were much more likely to say they lacked adequate funding and travel money. Sixty percent of women in developing countries said they did not have adequate funding, compared with 33% of women in developed countries. 63% of women in developing countries lacked travel money, compared with 32% in developed countries.

“I am not given a single cent for traveling. It’s very sad,” wrote one woman from Tanzania. “Right now I have a collaborator in the US but no funding to support me. It is frustrating somehow,” wrote a woman from Nigeria.

Worldwide, women reported both positive and negative effects of marriage on their career progress. Some said their husbands had been very supportive, while others said that family and household duties were not shared evenly, or that their husband’s careers had taken precedence over their own.

In the 2002 survey, many women mentioned a lack of affordable childcare as a factor that influenced their careers. The recent survey therefore included a number of questions about childcare in order to further probe the issue, said Rachel Ivie, one of the study’s authors. However, many women responding to the 2005 survey pointed out that childcare is an issue for all working women, not just physicists, and furthermore, while childcare is a problem, negative attitudes towards women in science were a much bigger problem. Eighty percent of women agreed that attitudes about women in physics need improvement, while 55% said daycare cost needs improvement.

Women in developed countries were more likely than women in developing countries to say that childcare was a problem. One Brazilian woman wrote “I think that in my country, the main problem for women in science is not the family. We have maids.”

During their education and early careers, most women reported that they had some support from at least one other person, though they also said they relied on their own hard work, perseverance, and determination. Most women reported a good or excellent relationship with their graduate advisors.

Many women (60%) had chosen physics as a career while they were in high school. While most (85%) cited their interest in the subject as the reason for their career choice, many (50%) also said that a teacher had influenced their decision. Ivie said that other studies have found that men in physics also report interest in the subject as the main reason for their career choice, but they are less likely than women to say they had been influenced by a teacher.

Though generally happy with their chosen careers, 71% of women in physics said they were sometimes discouraged, especially by discrimination and lack of funding.

In some countries women receive a greater percentage of physics bachelor’s and PhD degrees than others. Turkey is at the top of the list, with 39% of bachelor’s degrees and 28% of PhDs going to women. Many factors contribute to the representation of women in physics in a given country, explained Ivie. In some countries, especially in the developing world, education is a class issue, so upper class women are often given a good education and encouraged to study subjects like physics. However, those women are often expected to give up their career when they get married. In developed countries, factors such as childcare may make the difference in whether women can pursue a career in physics. For instance, in France, which awards 24% of physics PhDs to women, childcare is available and affordable, whereas in Germany, which gives only 10% of its physics PhDs to women, childcare is much less easily available.

Despite the difficulties for women in physics, women who answered the survey were enthusiastic about their careers, and 86% said they would choose physics again. Many women expressed their love of the subject.

“I feel that physics chose me, not the other way around. I was born a physicist,” wrote a woman from the Netherlands. Another woman, from Egypt, expressed a similar sentiment: “Physics is in my mind and blood.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff