APS News

June 2018 (Volume 27, Number 6)

Climate Check: Assessing the Environment in the Physics Workplace

By Leah Poffenberger

Promoting diversity in STEM fields is a hot topic, but some physicists may still receive a cool reception in the workplace. That’s the message of a new NSF-funded survey of APS members released by researchers at the University of Michigan and Temple University. The survey was conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

As one part of a larger STEM Inclusion Study, the survey was designed to assess the current climate for traditionally marginalized groups in STEM by investigating the day-to-day experiences of a representative sample of 1500 non-student members of APS. The results provide new insight into the progress that physics workplaces have made towards being diverse and inclusive.

The full STEM Inclusion Study will analyze results from similar surveys of members of over a dozen other STEM organizations, which will provide insight into how climates differ among STEM fields. Once the survey phase of the project is complete, participants can volunteer for in-depth interviews with the research team. And in the summer of 2019, the heads of each participating organization will meet to discuss the results of the overall survey and make plans for improving the climate in STEM for marginalized groups across all disciplines.

STEM Inclusive Study logo

In general, APS members rated their workplaces more positively than negatively. However, a concerning trend exists: Women, minorities, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) individuals, and people with disabilities reported encountering negative day-to-day experiences more than their colleagues who are men, white, non-LGBTQ, and without disability, respectively. For all measures of the workplace environment, women were significantly more likely than men to report negative perceptions.

The results also send a signal to academia: physicists working in for-profit companies reported a more positive climate for marginalized groups than physicists working in universities.

“Perception does matter,” says Monica Plisch, Director of Education and Diversity at APS. “Negative perceptions can affect work — using brain bandwidth to worry can impact job-creativity and impede innovation.”

Understanding the ways in which a work climate may be inhospitable to certain groups is an important step to facilitating change. “We are excited to partner with APS for this study,” says University of Michigan sociologist Erin Cech, who along with Temple University sociologist and science studies scholar Tom Waidzunas is one of the study’s principal investigators. “This partnership allows us to send data back to participating organizations, where the information can have the most impact. It’s also a sign APS is serious about supporting its diverse constituents.”

The STEM Inclusion Study survey included a variety of questions aimed at assessing three indicators of climate: experience of inclusion and marginalization; experience of professional devaluation or respect; and reports of fairness in one’s workplace. All analyses included controls for education level, work experience, age, employment sector, and other demographic factors.

The first survey section ranged from questions about inclusion such as “I feel like I fit in with other people at my workplace” to questions about encounters with overt marginalizing behavior like “I was harassed verbally or in writing in the last year.” Overall, feelings of inclusion were high and instances of marginalization were low, but women were significantly more likely to experience marginalization and harassment on all measures. LGBTQ respondents were less likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to report feeling like they fit in with their colleagues; more likely to worry their mistakes were more visible than mistakes of others; and more likely to have heard co-workers make negative comments or jokes.

The second part of the survey focused on whether physicists feel that their professional expertise is devalued in their workplace, asking whether participants agreed with statements like “In my workplace, my work is respected,” “I am held to the same standards as others for advancement,” and “I have to work harder than my colleagues to be perceived as a legitimate professional.” Again, results were mostly positive: On average, respondents felt respected in the workplace and believed they were held to the same standards for success in the workplace. Yet, women were less likely than men to report that their professional expertise was respected in their workplaces across all measures. And women, Hispanic, Asian, Black, and LGBTQ participants all were more likely than men, whites, and non-LGBTQ persons to agree that they had to work harder than their colleagues to be perceived as a legitimate professional.

These survey questions were constructed to measure systemic differences in the experiences of employees across demographic groups when controlling for education level, experience, employment sector, and age. Such a design is considered “the gold standard in understanding climate issues within professional occupations,” according to Cech.

Assessing these reports of workplace experiences across groups is a more accurate way to understand climate than asking questions such as “what is your experience as a woman in physics,” Cech noted.

The third section of the survey analyzed reports of workplace fairness aggregated by job sector, measuring the proportion of respondents employed in each sector who witness certain behaviors in their workplaces. Reports of witnessing unfair behavior in the workplace were generally low, but respondents working in the university sector were significantly more likely to state they had seen poor behavior.

One striking statistic was the proportion of “respondents by sector who reported witnessing person(s) being treated differently due to gender in the last three years.” Across all employment sectors, 33% witnessed differential treatment of a colleague due to gender in the last three years. When analyzed by sector, 35% of respondents working for universities reported witnessing biased treatment by gender — a statistically significant difference from the for-profit sector average of 25%.

“Physics departments can have climate issues due to cultural assumptions and cognitive biases about what a physicist doing cutting-edge research looks and acts like,” says Cech. “In industry, there’s often a broader variety of professional backgrounds working together and more multifaceted definitions of excellence, which improves the climate for everyone.”

A copy of the results of the survey of APS members can be obtained in the STEM Inclusion Study Survey Reportformat_pdf, and more about the study is available at the STEM Inclusion Study website.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

June 2018 (Volume 27, Number 6)

Table of Contents

APS News Archives

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Articles in this Issue
Reporting on Research from the Physical Review Journals
Getting a Running Start in Physics
Physicists for Human Rights
Physicist Pinpoints Urban Gunfire
AI Makes Inroads in Physics
Climate Check: Assessing the Environment in the Physics Workplace
How Big Is the Proton, Really?
Spotlight on Development
Education and Diversity Update
This Month in Physics History
News from the APS Office of Government Affairs
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