APS News

Parsing the Data About Women in Physics

By Calla Cofield

At a press conference at the APS March Meeting, Louis Amaral from Northwestern University presented results from a paper in which he and colleagues carefully examine what factors may influence publication rates among women in STEM fields. Roxanne Hughes of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory presented results from her study of the effectiveness of a program targeted at providing more opportunities to female physics undergraduates.

Women Publish Less Than Men
A simple count of publication numbers by gender shows fewer publications from women in STEM compared to their male colleagues.

Researchers at Northwestern University and Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia, Spain decided to ask the more dynamic question of whether or not male scientists were actually outperforming their female counterparts. Their results were published in December 2012 in the journal PLoS One. The team created an equation for publication rate that incorporated variables such as the stage the person is at in his/her career, and the number of publications from the entire field or discipline in that year.

They also considered that some disciplines require significantly larger research budgets than others. For example, data from the National Science Foundation shows that PIs in industrial engineering have an average yearly expenditure of $0.094 million, whereas PIs in molecular biology averaged $1.28 million per year.

When the group factored these elements into a new calculation of publication rates, they confirmed that in disciplines where expenditures are low, there is no “significant difference” in publication rates based on gender. The publication discrepancy is larger, however, in more costly disciplines.

As the paper notes, women in STEM fields have historically received “less institutional support and have had less access to research resources” than male colleagues. It now appears those discrepancies have a direct impact on publication rates.

Undergraduates Need More than Access
Roxanne Hughes, Director of the Center for Integrating Research at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, presented results from her 2012 study in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering on the effectiveness of a program called WSTEM, targeted at supporting female undergraduate students in STEM fields. The program included living in a dorm with other female STEM majors, and providing access to research opportunities and mentorships.

Among 26 female undergraduate students pursuing a STEM undergraduate degree at the university, 12 of them persisted while 14 left their STEM major. Six of the women who participated in the WSTEM program remained in the physics department, while six left.

Hughes says that, among participants in the WSTEM program, the split between women who persisted and those who left was almost identical to that among non-participants. This suggests that access to resources and opportunities within the STEM fields does not result in a significant increase in retention of female students. More in-depth analysis by Hughes found that the common factors among students who persisted in STEM fields were: specific STEM goals and aspirations (which may often be developed with mentors or more one-on-one interactions with professors), and strong social networks (either established formally by a program or informally).

“Sometimes … opening access doesn’t change the underlying issues that are affecting women and underrepresented minorities persistence [in STEM fields],” said Hughes, noting that both students who persisted in STEM and those who left reported seeing signs of the “chilly climate,” such as a lack of guidance, and a lack of help and advice from faculty. But, she notes, these are factors that can affect both males and females.

Hughes also noted that the federal government is investing in programs and policies that provide this kind of access to women and underrepresented minorities. She says those programs and policies should also include efforts to make students more aware of the opportunities available to them. 

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella