Doing Something about the Lack of Women and Underrepresented Minority Physicists

From the Chair, Randy Knight

There’s good news: The number of bachelor’s degrees in physics has doubled in the last 15 years, from a low of 3500 in 1999 to over 7000 this year. Unemployment of physicists is almost nonexistent, so we’re far from saturating the market for physicists with bachelor’s degrees.

But there’s also bad news: This upsurge in the number of physics majors has largely bypassed women and minorities. The percentage of physics bachelors degrees awarded to women increased steadily for 4 decades, peaking at 23% in 2004, but has since fallen back to 20%. Women earn 40% or more of bachelor’s degrees in nearly all other math and science programs.

The situation for underrepresented minorities is even worse. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of physics bachelor’s degrees going to African Americans has declined from 5% to 2%. Hispanics physics majors have done a slightly better, slowly increasing to 7% of bachelor’s degrees. To put this in context, underrepresented minorities make up 35% of the college-age population but earn only 9% of the bachelor’s degrees in physics. One page on the APS web site refers to the statistics as “appalling” and goes on to say “Physics ranks the lowest [for percentage of degrees going to underrepresented minorities] at all levels of participation among science and mathematical fields.”

Physics is used to being at the top of various rankings. But when it comes to women and minorities in our profession, we’re at the bottom of the stack. A hard truth.

It’s easy to put the blame somewhere else: Poor K-12 schools, a culture that discourages women and minorities from pursuing science, etc. But the number of girls taking high school physics has never been higher — they are now 47% of students in regular high school physics; a bit less but still a significant fraction in AP classes. And engineering, math, and the other sciences are succeeding where we’re not. The evidence is strong that there is a substantial pool of women and underrepresented minorities that is capable, well prepared, and interested in STEM fields, but they’re turning away from physics.

This is not someone else’s problem to deal with. As a profession, and as an educational community, it’s our problem.

Fortunately, there’s more good news: There are many things that physics departments can be, and should be, doing to increase the number of women and minority majors. This issue of the Forum newsletter looks at several programs that have been successful at recruiting women physics majors. Most of their actions apply equally well to recruiting underrepresented minorities. To add to their to their hands-on experience, I want to highlight a number of strategies I’ve learned about over the years and to point you to some resources that can help.

The APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics
CUWiP started in 2006 at the University of Southern California. It has been so successful that the next conference, in January, will be held simultaneously at 9 different sites across the country. Over 1200 students are expected to attend. Please ensure that every woman physics major in your department has the opportunity to attend at least once during her undergraduate career.

Site visits
The Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and the Committee on Minorities both sponsor site visits to investigate the climate for women and minorities in a department and to help shape a strategy for improving the climate. Consider requesting a site visit for your department.

Take a hard look at your department culture
Are women and minorities really welcome in your department? Encouraged? What evidence can you point to? Department climate and culture, of course, are not only about student-faculty relations but about how faculty treat each other and, often overlooked, how students respond to each other. In a department where I was an external reviewer not long ago, I was perturbed in a meeting with the students when several male students kept cutting off the one female student before she could finish a thought. When I later mentioned it to the faculty, they were unaware of a hostile climate among the students. But you can be sure that potential women majors were aware of this — and were voting with their feet to choose different majors.

Provide mentoring
It’s easy, if you’re part of the majority, to think that mentoring is no big deal. It tends to occur fairly spontaneously. Not so if you’re in the minority, aren’t sure if you belong, and don’t really know what your academic and career options are. Who can you talk to who has had similar experiences? Formal mentoring programs, starting with freshmen, help ensure that women majors, many of whom are still quite tentative, feel welcome and get good advice, without which they are likely to change majors. Mentoring underrepresented minorities is even more challenging due to the lack of underrepresented minorities among physics faculty. To deal with this, APS is working to establish a National Mentoring Community with skilled mentors throughout the country who can help guide underrepresented minorities through their academic career.

Actively recruit outstanding women and minority students
If you have a woman or underrepresented minority student doing well in introductory physics, why not start a conversation with her? “Hey, you’re doing really well at this. Have you ever thought about majoring in physics?” For most, the answer is probably No. Maybe they’re quite firm in their chosen major. Maybe they lack the confidence to consider physics. More likely, they simply have no idea what physics is or what physicists do. But if you open a door for them, a few will walk through it.

Improve your department web site!
College catalogs are long gone. Today’s high school students make career choices and college choices based largely on what they find online, especially — when application time draws near — department web sites. Does your department have a web site that is inviting and informative to all potential students, but especially to women and underrepresented minorities? Probably not. There are few excellent department web sites, but the large majority of sites I see do little to welcome potential students.

A typical department web site is so focused on research, faculty, and graduate admissions that a prospective freshman can hardly discover where to navigate to for information. If there is a page for prospective students, it’s usually a dry recitation of “Physics is the foundation of all science …”, maybe a laundry list of fields of physics, a list of graduation requirements, and perhaps a sample four-year program of classes. Sorry, but in 2015 you’ve just lost me as a potential physics major if that’s the best you can do.

Most high school seniors are not looking for the hottest research topics. They, and their parents, want to know what it’s like to major in physics, what physicists do, what the career options are, and what kind of salaries physicists earn compared to other professions. And, indirectly, they want to know if they’ll “fit in” to physics, if they’ll find people like themselves. Who better to answer their questions than your own students and alumni?

The most effective department web sites I’ve seen have a highly visible Prospective Students link on the home page, and then the majority of the information is presented in vignettes and stories told by current students and recent grads. “Hi! I’m Clair, and this is what I’m doing as a physics major at State U and it’s so cool and all the professors are so understanding and next quarter I’m going to start a research project on quantum widgets and I’m so excited.” With lots of photos, of course. Students — especially women and minorities — want to be able to envision themselves as physics majors in your department. Help them do so, and they’ll show up.

I hope you’ll explore these tools and options. We have a problem. Let’s fix it.

Randy Knight is Chair of the Forum on Education. He is Professor Emeritus at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and author of the introductory textbooks Physics for Scientists and Engineers: A Strategic Approach and (with co-authors Brian Jones and Stuart Field) College Physics.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.