Welcoming Climate for Women at The Ohio State University

Jyoti Katoch, The Ohio State University

In this document we highlight the steps the Ohio State University Physics Department continuously has taken to develop a community that encourages, nurtures and supports female physicists.  The department participates in several programs and activities that provide a welcoming and conducive environment for women and underrepresented minorities to flourish and become successful scientists. In addition, the faculty and staff in the physics department make a concerted effort to understand and be sensitive to the challenges faced by the women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. There are many successful women faculty members in the department who are excellent mentors for younger women. In this article we share the actions taken by our department to make the environment welcoming to women.

Female Faculty: In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to hire new women faculty in the department. Today, about 10% of our physics faculty is female, which is comparable to the national average number of 12%, according to the information available from American Institute of Physics (AIP) Statistical Research Center in 2010. To ensure the success of our new faculty, we have a mentoring program in place that advises them about the tenure process. The senior male/female faculty members informally and formally participate in this mentoring program, which has strongly benefited new female faculty.

Graduate Admission: One of the first barriers to having a strong female presence in STEM fields is removing any bias in the admissions process itself. A growing volume of scholarly work suggests that graduate admissions based only on traditional standardized tests cannot predict future success in graduate school, and can lead to reduced diversity in graduate physical science programs. This is due to the fact that women score significantly lower on standardized tests, which can put them at a disadvantage during the initial screening of applications and frequently results in rejection. To combat this, Ohio State’s Physics Department progressively implemented a more “holistic” approach to attract promising women to our PhD program, particularly female students who had low GRE physics scores, but had done outstanding research. This means that our Graduate Admissions Committee puts less emphasis on traditional so-called “cognitive” metrics of student ability and potential, such as general GRE scores, Physics Subject GRE scores, and GPA, and puts more emphasis on “non-cognitive” factors, such as research experience, letters of reference and evidence of “grit” — the drive and persistence to overcome significant obstacles and succeed. Recently, the Department of Physics offered fellowships to a group of women who had very similar and low Physics GRE scores, but had good grades and extremely strong research experience and letters. Three of these students came to Ohio State, two went on to win NSF Graduate Research Fellowships while at Ohio State, and all three were extremely successful and have graduated. With this experience in mind, we now consider all aspects of graduate student applications, and never use a GRE “cutoff” to screen applications. We have found that this has led to a strong increase in the number of offers we make to women and students from other groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in physics graduate programs. These efforts have helped to increase the number of applicants and matriculated students from underrepresented groups into our PhD program, as well as into our Bridge Program.

The Society of Women in Physics (SWiP): With a growing population of women and underrepresented groups in the department, it is important that support systems exist to ensure their continued success. The department encourages many activities that help women to network, grow and reach their full potential. The physics department provides monetary as well as administrative support for smooth and effective functioning of The Society of Women in Physics (SWiP), an academic organization of undergraduate and graduate students. This group provides a platform for women undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and faculty in the department to interact, socialize and connect one-to-one with each other. SWiP engages in various activities aimed at professional development and the social and emotional well-being of its members. This includes inviting female speakers from many disciplines to give talks, creating workshops for coping with conflicts common in academia, and hosting social events that increase the communication between women at all stages in their career. Recently SWiP organized a “microagressions” panel and an “imposter syndrome” workshop. Both these events were also well attended by male members of the department and led to positive discussions. Additionally, the SWiP Mentoring program connects undergraduates with graduate student mentors; several undergraduates who previously participated in this program went on to graduate school and careers in industry.

Girls Reaching to Achieve in Sports and Physics (GRASP): Every year during summer, physics department faculty, staff and students organize a five-day camp for middle school girls to inspire and encourage scientific thinking. Each day, the participants take part in an interactive physics demonstration and then follow it by physical activity that helps in understanding physics phenomenon in everyday life. Such scientific activities are important to attract women to STEM fields in higher education. It is noteworthy that this program was conceived and initiated by a few of our undergraduate women in physics about five years ago.

Behavioral Coaching: With increasing numbers of women in the undergraduate and graduate program, there is a greater need to coach male members in the department about professional language and behavior. In 2013, our physics department discovered a concern about the unprofessional behavior by undergraduate men towards undergraduate women in the student lounge. The department took very swift action to curb such unacceptable behavior through discussions within the department and invited an external review committee site visit. The external review site visit was sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) of the American Physical Society (APS). The committee (four member team) acknowledged the significant steps taken by the department to improve the climate for women in the department and at the end recommended certain areas for improvement. The review process was very informative and positive, and helps us to further work towards improving diversity in the department.

Wellness Room: In order to accommodate the specific needs of women in the department, the physics department, in partnership with the SWiP, constructed, furnished and maintains a wellness room. This room provides a clean, private environment to breastfeeding mothers or individuals who need it for physical and mental well-being. It is equipped with refrigerator, sink, microwave, chair and a phone. This room is a tangible example of how the faculty and staff are supportive of women and their family responsibilities. It is also open for men who might need such private space.

Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP): We also are very concerned with extending this support to as many females in STEM fields as possible. In January 2010, the department hosted the 3rd Annual Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, attended by 150 undergraduate women in physics. In our continued commitment to support women in physics, the department has once again pledged to host the conference for undergraduate women in physics (CUWiP) in January 2016. The conference will attract undergraduate women in physics from Ohio and five neighboring states: Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. It provides a unique opportunity to encourage, motivate and guide undergraduate women in physics. It is a great platform for all attendees to interact with each other and provide them with tools to have a successful career and life balance. The conference helps us attract more women to our PhD program, which in turn helps to improve the diversity of our department. It also allows us to engage with female students, staff and faculty to learn and understand the evolving challenges faced by women in the sciences.

In summary, the active steps taken by the physics department have enhanced the department’s atmosphere. By continuous vigilance, engagement and openness to new ideas, we can ensure an environment where women in STEM fields will succeed.

Jyoti Katoch is a post-doctoral researcher at The Ohio State University. She received her PhD in 2014 from the University of Central Florida, where she founded and served as president of the Physics Women Society. While at UCF, she was the recipient of the Provost’s Graduate Fellowship for two consecutive years. Her research focus is on electronic and spintronic properties of 2D materials. She co-wrote the proposal to host Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP) at The Ohio State University in January 2016.

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.