APS News

June 2007 (Volume 16, Number 6)

Gender Equity: No Silver Bullet but Lots of Ways to Help

Alice Agogino of UC Berkeley addresses the opening session of the Gender Equity conference.
Photo by Ken Cole

Alice Agogino of UC Berkeley addresses the opening session of the Gender Equity conference. (See story on the right.) There were 127 attendees at the conference, of whom 72 were male and 55 were female–closer to gender equality than in the larger physics community.
Chairs of about 50 major research-oriented physics departments in the United States and managers of about 15 physics-related national laboratories met at the American Center for Physics May 6-8 for a conference entitled “Gender Equity: Strengthening the Physics Enterprise in Universities and National Laboratories.”

The goal of the meeting, according to conference co-chair Nora Berrah of Western Michigan University, was to find ways to double the number of women in physics over the next 15 years. The gender equity conference was organized by APS with support from NSF and DOE.

Women now make up about 13% of physics faculty, but only 7.9% at top 50 research-oriented universities. Berrah pointed out that chemistry and astronomy have twice the percentage of women that physics has. “The gender gap is a serious concern. We should be talking advantage of the pool of talent,” she said.

In the opening session, workshop co-chair Arthur Bienenstock of Stanford University said that given the current US demographics and increasing competition from other countries in science and technology, we need to increase the proportion of the US workforce engaged in science and technology. To do this, we must recruit more women to scientific careers. “If we fail to increase the participation of women we will see a steady decline in the fraction of the workforce in science and technology,” he said.

Workshop attendees participated in an interactive theater performance by the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) players. The sketch, “faculty meeting” showed some of the subtle biases and often unnoticed behaviors that make it difficult for women to succeed.

After listening to presentations and participating in break-out groups, workshop participants came up with recommendations for increasing the number of women in physics. Department chairs were asked to take at least two recommendations back to their departments and implement them. A website will be set up for them to report their progress.

Throughout the meeting, speakers and participants addressed the causes for the low numbers of women in physics and made recommendations for improving the situation. Many of the recommendations were aimed at creating a more welcoming climate for all physics students and young professors, including women. 

Virginia Valian of Hunter College attributed the slow progress of women to the many subtle biases against them. We all hold mental schemas (essentially stereotypes) of men as capable, independent, and decisive, while we view women as caring, nurturing, and emotional. We also hold schemas about the qualities of a good scientist, she said. These schemas influence the way people evaluate male and female job candidates, Valian said. She cited several recent studies showing this to be the case. 

There is no silver bullet to fixing these problems, she said. Gender schemas are ubiquitous, persistent, and resist change, so we have to be constantly working to counter them, she said.

Several speakers focused on the biases against care-giving that tends to harm women’s careers. Mary Ann Mason of the University of California, Berkeley and Robert Drago of Penn State University both presented evidence showing that bias against care-giving in the academic workplace slows women’s career progress. Furthermore, more women than men report having missed important events in their children’s lives or limited the number of children they have in order to achieve success in their careers. Women often fear they won’t be taken seriously as scientists if they take time off for family reasons, Drago pointed out.  

To address this problem, better family leave policies are needed, and they must apply to men as well as women, speakers said. Women will be more willing to take advantage of family leave benefits if they see men also taking time off for family. 

Workshop participants also discussed ways to recruit, hire, and retain more women faculty. These included broadening the search, making sure the search committee isn’t overlooking good women or minority candidates, and encouraging women to apply. 

Particular attention needs to be paid to the dual career couple problem, said several speakers. Female scientists are likely to be married to male scientists, and both members of the couple need to be able to find suitable employment. To attract female faculty members, universities need to have a plan to for handling these situations. Often these arrangements benefit the university and the couple, so the dual career problem can be turned into a “dual career opportunity,” said Sherry Yennello of Texas A&M University. Many universities are already developing policies for hiring couples.

Physics departments also need to increase the number of female undergraduate physics majors. Barbara Whitten of Colorado College said that the undergraduate level is where the biggest leak in the pipeline comes in, and the undergraduate level is usually the last chance to recruit new students to physics. Whitten suggested that to recruit more majors, including more women, departments should focus on introductory courses and create an attractive curriculum that includes contemporary topics. Departments can also be friendlier towards undergraduates by creating student lounges, encouraging cooperative group work, hosting social events, and making departmental seminars accessible to undergraduates, she said.

Funding agencies are also concerned about the low numbers of women in physics. Patricia Dehmer, Associate Director of Science for Basic Energy Sciences and acting Deputy for Programs in the DOE Office of Science, said that the career path of an academic scientist is unattractive to today’s workforce, in which both men and women work, and people want to have both a career and a family. “We’re advertising jobs that are, frankly, antiquated,” she said. We shouldn’t be encouraging people to trade family and children for careers in science and technology, she said.

From a federal perspective, a science and technology workforce is essential to the economy, Dehmer said. The S&T workforce must represent the whole population, not alienate large portions of the population, she said.

Judith Sunley, Executive Officer of NSF’s Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Science, also said that the funding agencies can play an important role. She pointed out that there have been successful programs such as NSF’s ADVANCE, which provides grants for programs to increase the participation of women in academic science and engineering careers.

Several workshop participants expressed the concern that the difficulty of applying for funding is deterring young people from scientific careers, as they see young assistant professors having to spend a lot of their time applying for funding.

Working in break-out groups, participants made several recommendations for funding agencies. These recommendations included finding ways to fund child care so scientists with children can travel to conferences, finding ways to reduce the pressure on assistant professors applying for funding, encouraging young professors to meet program officers, and encouraging the use of no-cost extensions to grants or other existing policies to allow scientists to take time off for family reasons.

APS Executive Officer Judy Franz mentioned several successful programs of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, such as site visits to departments to help them assess and improve the climate for women, lists of best practices, and professional skills development workshops for women. Franz asked the department chairs to go back to their departments and speak up about these issues that affect women. “If you can create an atmosphere where everyone is valued and treated with dignity, you will have a female-friendly department,” she said.

In concluding remarks, Bienenstock said we’ve seen enormous change in the situation of women in physics over the past 50 years. He urged participants to continue working towards more improvement. 

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