2013 Runner-Up - First-Year Essay
Underrepresentation of Women in Physics:
A General Discussion and Anonymous Interviews from Ithaca College Faculty
Megan Lauree Kelleher
According to the official website of the Nobel Prize, of the 193 physics Nobel Laureates from 1901 to 2012, only two are women. The representation of women in physics is low, but it can be better. Ithaca college physics professors have offered their insight into this discussion.
Over time the representation of women in physics has improved. Acording to the American Institute of Physics, in 1987 39% of American high school physics students were female; in 2005, 47% of high school physics students were female. This increase in representation at the high school level gives hope to the idea more and more women will be represented all levels of physics. However, in high school it seems that less women take the advanced route. According to the American Institute of Physics, in 2005, only 36% of taking the AP Physics B were female, and only 27% of those taking AP Physics C- Mechanics were female. There is still much to improve.
There is especially room to improve at the higher levels of education and employment. As the level or rank increases, women seem participate less in physics. Although the percentage of people earning bachelor's degrees in physics who are women has increased over time, it is still relatively low. The National Science Foundation reported in 2009 that despite the fact that women earn over half of bachelor's degrees, they only earn 21% of physics bachelors. This is disappointing.
Another indicator that there is room to improve when it comes to the representation of women in physics is unequal representation across counties. While Italy suffers from the same problems as other countries in that it loses women as the level of position increases, it is considered a strong country when it comes to the representation of women in physics. A study called "Women in Physics in Italy: The Leaky Pipeline" reports that in Italy in 1960 20.8% of undergraduate physics students were women. In 1999, 36.4% of undergraduate Italian physics students were women. This is better that the representation of American women in physics in 2006. It may be that there are strategies some counties are employing to support women in physics that other countries could benefit from.
The representation of women in physics could potentially be self-maintaining. With more role models in physics, more women could potentially see themselves as physicist. Often when a professor wants to move up in her career, they must look for a person in higher position at another college to review her work. With fewer and fewer women as the level of position increases, this process could be intimidating. It seems that greater representation of women in physics will lead to better chances of more women in physics. Ultimately, it would be good if women and men were represented in physics equally.
In order to gain some insight from Ithaca College physics faculty on the underrepresentation of women in physics, interviews were conducted through online surveys. These surveys were conducted between December 4 and December 9, 2012. The interview asked questions concerning the age and gender of the participants. The questions that followed are:
1. What do you believe is the primary reason women are underrepresented in Physics?
2. Is there a difference in confidence between the men and women students of physics?
3. Is there a difference in enthusiasm between the men and women students of physics?
4. Is there a difference in competency between the men and women students of physics?
5. What have you done as a professor to encourage women in physics?
6. What changes would most encourage more women in physics?
7. Do you believe that gender has affected your career and/or education? If so, how?
These questions are intended to provide insight into the opinions of Ithaca College physics professors, guide future questions and research, and to assist the development of solutions for the problem underrepresentation of women in physics.
The survey was sent to nineteen associate professors, assistant professors, lecturers, scholars in residence, retired associate professors, and emeritus professors. Of the nineteen, only three are women: one associate professor, one assistant professor, and one visiting female lecturer. This is considered relatively good representation by the staff and by the visiting lecturers.
There were six attempted responses, two of which are not viable because the responders failed to complete the survey. This may be because they found the survey to be too long or did not realize that there were multiple pages. Of the four complete responses, one was a woman.
It is important to note the weakness of this survey. This interview was only sent to faculty of Ithaca College's physics department. This is a very small sample, and the responses do not necessarily represent the views of other college's physic faculty or the physics staff at Ithaca College. Because it was conducted near the end of the fall semester, many of the staff were busy and possibly distracted. The questions are broad and difficult to answer. The style of the interview is necessarily cold because of its online nature. This survey is entirely voluntary. Those who have an interest in this subject are more likely to respond. Despite these weaknesses, the responders provided insightful answers.
Participant A is a male between the age of 45 and 54. His response to question 1 focuses on the discouragement of women in the hard sciences before and during college. He claims that the "heavy load of specialized math" is intimidating and makes transferring into a physics major difficult for women. His responses to questions 2-4 can be generalized together. His impression of his students is that the male students tend to display a sometimes "unwarranted confidence" while the female students tend to be more cautious. He believes that both genders could benefit from a little bit of both qualities. It might help the female students, for example, to jump into a project more freely, while the men could use a little more caution. His response to question 5 reveals that women tend to come to his office for help more than men. Participant A personally encourages women in physics by offering more office hours and suggesting physics as a major to those who show interest. In Participant A's response to question 6, he advises that the transition to physics be made as available and as easy as possible for undergraduate women who have expressed an interest in the sciences. His answer to question 7 reveals that throughout his career, he chose work with many women in Physics. He says, "I probably find women on the whole to be better to work with than men."
Interview Participant B is a male between the age of 45 and 54. His response is difficult to interpret because it often refers to studies instead of the responder's personal opinions and experiences. In his response to question 1, he refers to the underrepresentation of women in physics as, "an aggregate of many things." He mentions that men and women tend discriminate against women in physics equally and how the social pressures introduced in high school can have an effect on a woman's decision to continue in physics. When answering question 2, he claims that men blame the professor when they are confused in physics and women blame themselves. He believes, "using properly formed cooperative groups can minimize these issues and build confidence in all students." While Participant B sees no difference in enthusiasm or competency between men and women of physics, he notices that women in physics at Ithaca College seem to have better overall GPAs than the men. As a professor, he tries to encourage women in physics in three ways. To retain female students, he mentors.. To acquire new students, he encourages women in physics who show promise in an introductory course to consider physics as a major. To help students continue in physics, he goes out of his way to advise them about grad school. Participant B advocates for changes in high school such as making physics a requirement and introducing it earlier. Creating better learning environments with strong mentors is strongly suggested. He does not feel that gender had a significant impact on his career or education.
Participant C is a male between the age of 35 and 44. In his response to question 1, he suggests that, "the deliberate of exclusion of women in the past has lead to a social stigma that science and math are not appropriate for women." His answer to questions 2-4 describe that at Ithaca College in his experience, there is no difference in the confidence, enthusiasm, and competency between the genders in physics. As a professor, Participant C tried to unite women in physics with "get-togethers" for female students and faculty and with groups in a class, but he was asked to stop by female students who felt they were being "singled out." He feels that hiring more female physic faculty would encourage more women in physics. Participant C's answer to the last question was that although he had not experience gender bias, he realized that the lack of diversity he experienced may have been damaging.
Participant D is a female between the age of 25 and 34. In her response to the first question, she describes a difference between women's roles in the "soft" (ex: biology) and "hard" (ex: physics) sciences. She says that the underrepresentation of women in physics "stems from societal influence, which has long held that science [especially hard science] is more of a man's pursuit." She observes a difference in confidence between the genders in physics students. She describes that the men have an "outward (misplaced?) confidence in their abilities," but women tend to question themselves more. The challenge of the gender disparity might actually make her female students more enthusiastic, because they really have to love physics to deal with the gender issues. In her experience her female students tend to have better grades than her male students. To encourage more women in physics, she tries to use positive terms inside and outside the classroom. She wants to give her female students more confidence to act in physics. She also tries to bring in female lectures to physic seminars to better represent women in physics who are already successful. In her opinion, one of the keys to encouraging more women in physics is providing more positive female role models. In grad school, she experienced gender bias from professors. It motivated her, but "it could also be defeating." She feels more pressure to succeed because she is a woman, but she knows that it can be an advantage to be a woman in an application process; many employers and schools are trying to improve their representation of women in physics.
Participants A, B, C, and D share many experiences and beliefs. It seems that most participants believe that the discouragement of women in physics begins before undergraduate education and is part of a larger social issue. Hard sciences, those which involve special math skills, are sciences which women are perceived to avoid. At Ithaca College, it seems women could use more confidence in their ability to do physics. The participants believe that they can improve the confidence of women in physics by mentoring them and providing role models.
Future questions for further research on the underrepresentation of women in physics may include:
1. What/who is the biggest influence in a women's decisions to be a physics?
2. What is the source of the social stigma that prevents women from entering the hard sciences and how does one counteract it?
3. How do the women who succeed in physics rise above the social barriers?
4. Why do female physicists have higher GPAs than male physicists?
5. Which gender is more likely to leave physics during an undergraduate education?
6. Why does the representation of women in physics decrease as the level of study or profession increases?
7. Why is there a difference in representation between Italy and the United States?
8. How do women in physics become more visible to potential female physicists?
Based on the responses of the participants, highly suggested strategies for increasing the representation of women in physics may include:
1. Making an extra effort as an undergraduate professor to mentor, connect with, and advise students.
2. Offering extra office hours.
3. Inviting female guest lecturers.
4. Hiring full-time female physics staff.
5. Seeking out interested students early in their college career.
6. Changing high school education to make physics more accessible.
Making small changes to the physics education system can increase the representation of women in physics. Mark B. Schneider wrote in his "Encouragement of Women Physics Majors at Grinnell College: A Case Study" that, "[he is] convinced that the key to success is less in what one does than in how much one cares." The already increasing representation and difference of representation between countries gives hope to the idea that the representation of women in physics can continue to increase. It seems that the better representation becomes, the better the chances for improvement are. With a some effort, the representation of women in physics can continue to increase.
"All Nobel Prizes in Physics". Nobelprize.org. 19 Dec 2012 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/
Molinari, Elisa, Maria G. Betti, Annalisa Bonfiglio, Anna G. Mignani, and Maria L. Paciello. "Women in Physics in Italy: The Leaky Pipeline." Comitato per Le Pari Opportunità Istituto Nazionale Di Fisica Nucleare. Web. 5 Dec. 2012. <http://http://www.infn.it/cpo/contributi/contributi/2pages_elisa.pdf>
Schneider, Mark B. "Encouragement of Women in Physics Majors at Grinnell College: A Case Study." The Physics Teacher 39 (2001): 208-82. Web.
"Statistics." AIP. American Institute of Physics, Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
"Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering." National Science Foundation. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. <http://http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/>.