In Chapter 19 of his 2007 book, The Trouble With Physics, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin says:
There is heated debate among physicists over why there are not more women or blacks in physics, compared with other fields just as challenging, such as mathematics or astronomy. I believe the answer is simple: blatant prejudice. Anyone who has served, as I have, on decades of hiring committees and hasn't seen naked prejudice in action is either blind to it or dishonest.
Smolin goes on to cite A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT, which was conducted from 1995 through 1999, which indicates that women feel more marginalized the more they progress through the structure. Presumably action has been taken to combat this trend, but it's disturbing that it's there at all.
According to an American Physical Society study in 1998, only 6.5% of the workforce and 13% of PhDs in physics are occupied by women. In science, we call that kind of a difference (compared to 50% of the population) "statistically significant." According to a recent article, 20% of British undergraduates are studying physics, which implies that the numbers may not have improved much over the last decade or so.
One issue brought up in the MIT study is that women do feel that work-life balance makes it hard to pursue careers in the sciences, something which is certainly changing in all areas of academia and industry (in America, at least). Burnell mentions this, as well, pointing out that as younger men, whose wives also have careers, become heads of departments, they may be more understanding of the difficulties of balancing home life and work than past generations have been.
What's your opinion on this? Do you feel that the academic environment for women in physics has improved over the last few years? Or is it still an old boys' club?