Summer 2003


One Physics and Astronomy Department's Unique Demographics

Robert Ehrlich and Maria Dworzecka,
George Mason University

The Physics and Astronomy Department at George Mason University is demographically unique in the U.S.  Its 17 full-time faculty include seven females -- five times as many as would be expected, based on the national average.  While women now earn 35% of Ph.D.'s in all science and engineering fields combined -- not far from their fraction of all Ph.D.'s (42%) -- the figure for physics is a mere 13%. Thus, there is no significant shortage of women in science, but there is one in physics.

Some critics of affirmative action argue that efforts to recruit women and minority faculty may lead to compromises with regard to merit.  They may believe that a department that has been as successful as GMU in reducing its average testosterone level could do so only by putting considerations of affirmative action ahead of merit.  On the contrary, the department has been able to assemble a large group of highly talented female physicists and astronomers without paying any such price.  

However, the department does consider itself to be a very female friendly one.  In contrast, some women physicists and astronomers now here can recount experiences at previous institutions where their gender caused considerable grief, particularly with older male colleagues.  The existing pool of female talent now at GMU has made it that much easier for the department to recruit additional highly qualified women as colleagues.  This has been perhaps the most important factor in the department's being able to attain a critical mass of female talent.

Even more striking than their sheer numbers, the female physicists and astronomers at GMU include a truly awesome pool of talent, and they have collectively amassed awards and grants that would be the envy of many first tier research departments.  This development was largely unplanned, but occurred in part because the department has taken advantage of many individual opportunities over the years and it has had the strong support of its administration.

George Mason is a relatively young university, having split off from the University of Virginia in 1972.  During the intervening years the physics department has had a total of six department chairs, but its founder, Eugenie Mielczarek (now professor emeritus and still very active) and its current chair, Maria Dworzecka, are both women.  Mielczarek notes that when she was hired in '65 there were zero tenured or tenure track women physics faculty in the entire mid-Atlantic region.

In recent years many physics departments have been losing positions, as the numbers of physics majors have declined nationwide.   GMU, however, has been able to add faculty positions largely by sharing these positions with other academic units of the University -- including the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, the School of Computational Sciences, and the departments of Chemistry and Electrical Engineering.  New positions have also been gained in one case because the University won a Luce Fellowship for searching for a female astronomer by agreeing to support her after the first five years of outside funding.  More recently, the department has added a female experimental physicist on a tenure track position, largely as a result of an NSF-funded ADVANCE Fellows grant.

Currently the seven women in the department include two non-tenure track faculty, three assistant professors, and two full professors.  The five tenured and tenure track women faculty between them currently have a total of about 2 million dollars in federal research funding, and are currently supporting close to 10 undergraduate students on research projects.  Many of those research students are themselves female, but no effort is made to seek out female students specifically for such research.

"The faculty dedication to teaching, research, and students creates a supportive and comfortable atmosphere -- an extended family of physicists and astronomers," notes graduate student Jessica Kristin (Reitz) Gambill.

The women faculty in the department have certainly not formed a clique that the men find threatening.  Quite the contrary, the men in the department are proud of the accomplishments of their female colleagues, especially the recent additions to the department.  The GMU physics department has always desired to add faculty of the highest stature it could find, even if that has meant eclipsing the status of more senior members. 

Finally, by specifically adding so many women faculty the department has not discovered any new female way of teaching physics.  Some feminists may believe that physics could become more interesting to women by developing methods of instruction and themes that are more oriented towards women.  However, the department has no interest in such ideas, even while it remains very interested in expanding the numbers of female (and male) majors, and it remains a very female-friendly place.

Robert Ehrlich is a professor of physics at George Mason University

Maria Dworzecka is professor and chair of physics at George Mason University.