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A Diverse Leadership Matters

By Patricia Rankin

If we physicists are going to become a more inclusive community, we need to pay more attention to how we develop our leadership. As an example, after many years of slow but steady increases, the fraction of women undergraduates studying physics in the U.S. has recently decreased (see figure). This may be a short-term fluctuation, but even so, we should be concerned that we have not made more progress over the last 50 years.

Concerned, not just because it is hard to argue convincingly that our field offers equitable opportunities for all, but also because we badly need the skills that are currently being lost. Scott Page [1] has put forth a convincing case that a diverse skill set promotes better problem solving. The essential argument is that redundant skill sets do not improve the likelihood of finding a solution. To open up a broader solution space you need to increase the variety of tools available to solve the problem.

Page takes this further, which helps in understanding what types of problems are most likely to benefit from a diverse group approach. He notes that some fields are more "ladder-like" than others: Later concepts build upon earlier ones, so there is a generally agreed-upon order in which to learn tools. Physicists, for example, generally study Newton’s work before Einstein’s. This means if you take two physicists, the one with the less advanced education will typically add little to the overall skill set of the pair. And crowds do very well at estimating because low and high guesses tend to average out. They also do well on complex problems where there is likely to be a range of possible solutions, each with advantages and disadvantages. In these cases, where skills from several disciplines are needed, a diverse problem-solving group is more likely to generate a wider range of possible solutions and more likely to find a robust solution.

Perhaps this is why physics has been slower than some other fields to become more diverse. We traditionally have dealt with problems where there is a high probability of there being one right answer and a well-defined way to approach finding that answer, and these problems are ones where individual experts outperform groups in finding solutions. But the problems we are working on are changing scope, and as they become increasingly inter- and multi-disciplinary, we need to adapt.

STEM Physics chart
Image: APS/Source: IPEDS Completion Survey.

The fraction of undergraduate women studying physics has recently declined. Here, STEM fields include biological and biomedical sciences, computer and information sciences, engineering and engineering technologies, mathematics and statistics, and physical sciences and science technologies.

Patricia Rankin

Patricia Rankin

Page discusses the importance of intellectual diversity. Keeping people with diverse backgrounds in physics does not automatically ensure that intellectual diversity increases; however, there is evidence from other fields that increasing the representation of women has a positive impact. Having more women automobile engineers increases the attention paid to the safety of women drivers or passengers. (Women sitting in seats that cannot be adjusted, and which are designed for men’s comfort, are more likely to be injured in crashes.) In medical research, noting that women are often the primary caregivers can lead to a shift in vaccination priorities in order to slow an epidemic’s progress. Having women present at the table makes it more likely that women’s perspectives are considered and that better solutions are found.

Brickman et al. [2] developed a model to look at the attribution of the responsibility for causing a problem and the attribution of the responsibility for solving the problem. For example, nurses take on a high responsibility for providing solutions to their patient’s problems though they are not responsible for causing them. I’d argue that over the past fifty years, we have concentrated on how to help individuals succeed in the current environment. This "fix the women" approach to gender equity assumes that women lack the skills needed to succeed and thus that providing the skills will solve the problem; attributing both the cause of the problem and the responsibility for solving it to women.

This approach has had limited success, though a recent study [3] indicates that some people in STEM leadership roles still consider that "fixing the women" is the right way to go. This study employed semi-structured interviews of 31 STEM department chairs and deans at a large public university in the U.S. The outcome of the study was to divide leaders into one of two classes — as either Low Responsibility (LR) or High Responsibility (HR) leaders.

When LR leaders were asked to describe if change was needed to address gender imbalance in their departments, they said things such as "Things are good enough," or "[We are doing] better than others," or "better than before," or "simply not a problem [because] 20% of our faculty are female, which is great," or "More time will take care of the issue," etc. If these LR leaders admitted change was needed, then they saw the needed change as something outside of their control; for example, there needed to be more women students in the pipeline or more institutional support for hiring women [3]. LR leaders did not see a role for themselves in changing the situation.

In contrast, HR leaders described themselves as "actively involved" in hiring women and saw themselves as responsible for ensuring fair treatment of the women in their organization. For instance, one department head, probably aware of the studies showing that women faculty are often asked to serve on more committees than their male colleagues, actually took steps to quantify this. It would be interesting to look at the demographics of departments with LR and HR leaders and track how these demographics change with time. I expect that HR leaders are more likely to be found in units that are doing better than the average at recruiting and retaining women. While it would be nice to have that confirmed, I am confident enough of the results not to wait before arguing that we need more HR leaders in physics.

Ann Nelson has made an excellent case [4] that we all need to take responsibility for making our field more inclusive. We need to learn how to work in diverse groups and how to manage selection processes in our field in an unbiased way. And as our field evolves, it is becoming increasingly important that we have competent and informed leaders. As a graduate student, I was one of fewer than a hundred people working on a hybrid bubble chamber experiment. Today, the CMS collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider has about 3000 members. Not only are physics research groups becoming larger, but also many physicists are now members of multi-disciplinary efforts working to address complex problems. Leading these teams is a demanding job.

For some time now, we have recognized the need to provide opportunities for researchers to learn how to be effective teachers, rather than expecting them to just pick up teaching skills on their own. I would argue that there is an equal need to enable all researchers to develop their professional management and leadership skills through training rather than by trial and error. Everyone benefits from competent managers and leaders who follow established best practices, for example, in hiring and promotion. Wouldn't everyone agree that we need to ensure that we have the best possible applicants in the hiring pool? Wouldn't everyone agree to reduce the impact of our individual biases in selecting the best candidate for a job?

Why should we add even more material to the standard physics curriculum when there are already so many important concepts to master? The short answer is that having people use these skills in their work is a key to providing a good working environment for all of us. While we are providing these skills, we can also be discussing what good leadership is and encouraging people to take on responsibility.

We can debate if interest in leadership is nature or nurture, but there is no debate that we can improve people’s ability to manage and lead by providing support. One promising approach is the "T-shaped" professional movement. The idea behind this movement [5] is that we need to be producing individuals who have both deep skills in a single discipline such as physics (the vertical part of the T) and the broad skills (the horizontal part of the T) needed to succeed in working in teams and across discipline boundaries.

All of our students and junior faculty will benefit from explicit training in the basics of goal-setting and career-planning. Having meetings run by people who know how to set an agenda, encourage broad participation from attendees, and accurately attribute contributions from the group, will help address a common complaint from women that their comments are often overlooked until repeated by a man. If people understand the basics of dealing with workplace conflicts, the less likely it is that those conflicts will fester until things are so bad that people quit. The better-able people are to advocate for themselves and negotiate solutions that benefit everyone, the faster we will advance on addressing work/life issues.

T-shaped training programs do not directly aim to increase inclusion, but seek to help individuals manage themselves and work with others. I am not arguing for special treatment for anyone. I am asking that we all up our collective game, make sure we have all of the professional skills we need to do our work, and ensure that we are well led.

Acknowledgement: I thank Allan Franklin for helpful discussions about this article.


1. Page, S.E. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

2. Brickman, P., Rabinowitz, V.C., Karuza, J., Coates, D., Cohn, E. and Kidder, L. Models of Helping and Coping. 1982. American Psychologist. 4. 37: 368-84.

3. McClelland, S.I. and Holland, K.J. 2015. You, Me, or Her: Leaders’ Perceptions of Responsibility for Increasing Gender Diversity in STEM Departments. Psychology of Women Quarterly 39. 2: 210-25.

4. Nelson, A. 2017. Commentary: Diversity in physics: Are you part of the problem? Physics Today 5: 10-11 (physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.3536).

5. A brief introduction to the T-shaped movement can be found at agileleanlife.com/t-shaped-skills-every-area-life.

6. Rankin, P. and Caccamise, D. 2017. Why Women Arenʼt Where They Are Needed in the Workforce: Putting the Pieces Together. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation Expert Reviews Series on Advancing Women's Empowerment.

The author is a professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. She received her B.Sc. and Ph.D. from Imperial College London and began her career in experimental particle physics. She is currently chairing the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. Rankin is co-author of a textbook on vibrations and waves and of a recent review [6] discussing the need to increase the representation of women in science and engineering fields and ways to achieve that goal.

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