By Nadia Ramlagan
In February of 1900, Jeannie Evans and Jessie I. Spofford were elected as APS Fellows–the earliest recorded names of female Fellows from APS archives. The Society itself had been founded less than a year before.
Since then, according to the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, over 300 women have become APS Fellows. Although it is increasing, the number of women receiving Fellowship yearly remains relatively small. For example, in 1997 and 1998, there were 10 and 13 new women Fellows, respectively; in 2001 and 2002 there were 13 and 26, and in 2006 and 2007 there were 15 and 25. Of the two hundred and twenty five 2008 Fellows approved by the APS Council at its November meeting, 18 are women.
Only half of 1 percent of roughly 47,000 APS members can be elected to Fellowship yearly. As it currently stands, 94% of Fellows are male and 5% are female, with the remaining 1% providing no gender information, according to the APS membership database. Given that women constitute approximately 11% of total APS membership, there is a definite need and opportunity for improvement.
The Fellowship election process begins with a nomination by one’s peers; there is no way to be elected if one is not nominated. Every individual nomination needs a sponsor and a co-sponsor, each of whom must be APS members. Nominations are evaluated by the Fellowship Committee of the relevant Division, Topical Group or Forum, and after review by the APS Fellowship Committee, those who have been recommended are elected by full APS Council.
“Women who are nominated to their unit have a very good chance of being selected for inclusion on the list of proposed new Fellows: the bottleneck is the nomination process itself, something which is ultimately the responsibility of individual members,” says APS President-elect Curtis Callan, who chaired the 2008 Fellowship Committee.
The fraction of female nominations relative to their representation in the membership is significantly less than that of men. Data from 2001-2008 indicates that once nominated, women have a somewhat better chance of being elected than men do; it is the process of being nominated that presents an impasse, a pattern noticed by the current APS Fellowship Committee.
Some units are notably consistent in female nominations, particularly the Division of Particles and Fields, which has recommended several women every year since 2001. Other units are less impressive, and some haven’t had even a single female nomination during the same time period. Since unit membership varies greatly among divisions, topical groups, and forums, some unit Fellowship Committees have a broader range of nomination choices while others can be severely limited.
An important factor is how long ago women members received their PhD. Rachel Ivie, Assistant Director at the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics, notes that a reason for low representation among women physicists may be the available pool. This situation can be seen with women faculty, according to a 2005 report by Ivie and Kim Nies Ray. The report shows that in 2002, women represented 5% of full professors at US universities. While quite small, this percentage is commensurate with the average 4% percent of PhDs received by women between the years of 1967-1980. One would expect that the pool of faculty members who are eligible for APS Fellowship is composed of the upper echelon of older, accomplished physicists who have been PhDs for many years.
A similar trend may apply to Fellowship nominations. Because APS Fellows tend to be elected at least a decade after receiving their PhDs, low nomination numbers may be the result of fewer women in the pool to nominate. A selective breakdown of female membership by age, based on information in the APS membership database (which is not entirely complete), shows that roughly 1,600 women lie in the pool eligible for Fellowship (assumed to be non-student, age 36 and up), compared with about 21,000 males eligible for Fellowship. A more comprehensive analysis of female membership is needed before any solid conclusions can be reached.
In recent years several prestigious APS prizes and awards have been awarded to women. In 2008,the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter prize was awarded to Mildred Dresselhaus, the George E. Pake Prize was awarded to Julia Philips, and the David Adler Lectureship went to Karin Rabe. In 2009, the Joseph A. Burton Forum award will be given to Patricia Lewis.
Raising awareness and assiduously encouraging women nominations are ways to perhaps mitigate the bottleneck. Diversity among unit Fellowship Committee members should also be supported. “We need to communicate the message that the APS Fellowship Committee urges the membership to be more energetic in nominating women to their unit fellowship committees. Of course, this kind of ‘jawboning’ has to be done on a regular basis in order to have a real effect, so we need to remember to revisit this issue every year,” said Callan.