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The National Academies released a study in early June that found female scientists at major research institutions have made significant progress in overcoming many of the professional barriers they have historically faced in academia. Despite these gains however, women continue to remain underrepresented in science faculties overall.
The congressionally mandated study found that women seeking faculty positions and tenure are being selected at proportionally similar rates as men. In physics departments approximately 20 percent of tenure track positions are being filled by women. The study found that the main reason for this continuing disparity is the small number of women applying for such positions. Overall women make up only 14 percent of the PhDs in physics, and 12 percent of the applicant pool for university positions. The study focused primarily on women already enrolled in physics and did not delve into the underlying cause of the disparities at the undergraduate level.
“I think you can see even in the numbers that I showed that physics is still one of the fields that has an unfortunately quite low representation of women at the higher ranks. It’s certainly been improving, at other ranks, but even in the PhD production you can see there that the numbers are still too low,” said Claude Canizares of MIT, co-chair of the committee that assembled the report, “[T]he good news is that the discrepancies between the number of PhDs produced and those applying for faculty jobs and entering the faculty is very slight.”
Other encouraging findings showed that generally once women became members of faculties, they reported few measurable differences between them and their male coworkers. Indicators such as the number of published papers, grant funding, award nominations, promotions and other job opportunities all showed near parity with men’s reported rates. The study did show that women professors on average earned about 8 percent less than men; however at the assistant and associate level, salaries were equivalent.
The study looked specifically at the full time faculties of the top 89 Carnegie research universities, using data collected through surveys conducted between 2004 and 2005. Incorporating nearly 500 departments and over 1800 faculty members, the study focused on six disciplines; biology, chemistry, civil and electrical engineering, mathematics, and physics.
The information collected by the National Academies closely parallels the findings in the recently published report of the APS-sponsored 2007 Gender Equity Conference. The conference report states that “the physics workforce in academia and national laboratories remains one of the last areas in science where women are significantly under-represented relative to their proportion in the population.” In addition it assembled a broad series of suggestions and recommendations to better retain women faculty at universities and national labs and encourage more woman to seek degrees in physics.
Many of the recommendations from the conference report dovetailed with recommendations made by the National Academies study. Both recommended more aggressive recruitment by institutions, as well as greater transparency about promotion and tenure policies and maternity leave.
Other organizations have also endeavored to promote women in the sciences. The American Association for the Advancement of Science partnered with the cosmetics company L’Oréal USA to establish its Fellowships for Women in Science in 2004. This year the fellowship awarded five women $60,000 in grant money to aide their research, up from $40,000 from last year.
This year two of the five recipients were physicists. Tiffany Santos, of Argonne National Labs, won for her work synthesizing epitaxial oxide heterostructures and superlattices. Beena Kalisky of Stanford University said she will use her grant to further develop a SQUID microscope for imaging and characterizing individual magnetic nanoparticles.
“This scholarship made me think specifically about the status and contributions of women to the field of physics… it is not a secret that there are only a small number of women in physics, especially if you look at higher career levels,” Kalisky said, “Today’s culture and technology makes daily life much easier, and it is possible to find solutions for women who do make the choice of physics as a career and feel they encounter difficulties. As soon as the number of women in science grows, there will be more role models for other women to follow.”
Not only is it essential to retain talented women in the field, but also to find new ways to draw them to it in the first place.
“It is important to generate interest in young girls to study physics starting in grade school. This is difficult to do because in most cases, the physics teachers are male.” Santos said, “If young girls do not see women teaching science, then they are likely not to consider it as an option… Women are just as capable as men in studying physics, but they are getting lost along with way, mainly due to these gender biases and societal perceptions.
The fellowship was established to help women advance their postdoctoral research in the sciences. Recipients are chosen by a panel of seven leading scientists in a range of fields. This year’s panel included three physicists and the president the National Academies.
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