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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Role of Women in Physics

By November 11, 2008

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It's probably not a huge surprise to most readers to know that most practicing physicists are men, but there are obvious questions about why this is the case. Another question is how prevalent is it? Is it outright prejudice, or situational - the result of family/work conflicts that are more likely to arise for women than men?

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.

In October, though, Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell was named President of the Institute of Physics, a position that she hopes will help her serve as a visible role model for potential women physicists.

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?


November 22, 2008 at 10:47 pm
(1) Phil Russell says:

A question: If you could make a difference in this area, would you?

May 5, 2009 at 9:33 am
(2) Optixmom says:

It is impossible to point to one particular when it comes to increasing the % of women and minorities in Physics. I can only give examples of my experiences in the field. As a teenager, I was exceptional in Math, Biology, Chemistry, and Music. Physics was only offered to interested seniors. My guidance counselor never mentioned the physical sciences to me as an option for study. The only option given to me was to go into the medical field. Life sciences, that is where I would fit; thus, I never enrolled in high school physics. Lucky for me, I was accepted at an western NY university that had a diverse offering in the sciences and engineering. After only a few weeks as a Pre-med Bio major, I knew that I had fallen into the wrong track. The Dean of Engineering happened to be a woman at the time, and she turned me on to Optics and I have never looked back. I took my very first physics class as a sophomore and it was like eating chocolate for the very first time. How could I have possibly missed this field? How come no one every even thought to mention it is an option to me?

Another thing that I have noticed in my professional societies are the lack of women and minorities on the nominating committees for the Board of Directors. Individuals tend to follow the normal procedure, and if the norm has always been nominating white males, then this procedure will continue. You have to visibly shake up the system and continuously have women and underrepresented minorities on nominating committees so that they will nominate individuals other than white males.

July 20, 2010 at 6:24 am
(3) Robbie says:

I’m a 46 year old African American female…(ha! 2 strikes already) and never knew that there were careers in physics until a few of years ago. I have a degree in information systems and a masters in business, but my personal bent is mathematics of any kind and science. As a grammar student I was told that either teaching or nursing were fields for me. I have inclinations toward neither. Right now, I would like to know how and where to get a physics degree without hopping through anymore rings of fire. It’s hard to balance life and work and school. But it can be done and I’ve done it before. Any suggestions, tips, etc., would be greatly appreciated.


November 4, 2010 at 5:15 am
(4) Kimberly says:

I’m a female in physics. Here’s my perspective.

My undergraduate experience was pretty much the same as that for my male classmates. I did encounter subtle sexism, including receiving a B in an laboratory class for which I had clearly done A-level work. I tried to outsmart the unconscious biases of my professors (all but two of them were male): I printed with block, capital letters instead of cursive writing…a very masculine looking script. I never put my first name on any homework assignments or tests; I used just my first initial and last name.

After graduating [with honors] with my bachelor’s degree in physics, I married a newly-minted PhD. He was applying to post docs at the time; since we didn’t know where we were going to end up, I “followed” him, like many women do. I couldn’t apply to grad school since I didn’t know where we were moving, so I ended up working for a year instead of going to school.

Right as graduate school applications were coming due the following year, I found out I was pregnant (the inadvertent consequence of switching medications…definitely not a planned pregnancy). Since a grad school stipend isn’t enough to cover childcare expenses (and a post doc salary isn’t a lot of money to support three people on, especially in an expensive area like Southern California), I really had no choice but to do the stay-at-home mom thing. It’s not what I wanted to do for myself, but it’s what I had to do…

Fast forward to today. Now I’m getting ready to apply to grad schools and I’m dealing with all sorts of issues. Gathering letters of recommendation is practically impossible. In the 5 years since doing my undergrad, two of my profs are now in Europe and seem to be impossible to get in touch with, and another prof–the one with whom I did most of my undergraduate research–is now retired and traveling!

In addition, I have to figure out how to account for the big empty space on my CV between 2006 and 2010. I was explicitly told by a faculty member at the school I’m trying to get into that mentioning I’m a mom would be a big negative on my grad school app. After all, how can one completely dedicated to top-notch research is she had to attend to a kid all the time?

Sexism in physics is alive and well. I’m dealing with it right now, in 2010.

February 28, 2011 at 8:34 pm
(5) xxx says:

Why “follow” your husband????????????????

September 27, 2011 at 12:45 pm
(6) A women in physics says:

As a women in physics and I sympathise with most of the other commenters. In high school I went out of my way to get the physics classes and was thankful for my very supportive parents in pushing me towards the science fields. I now am finishing up my PhD and I still have males ask me if I plan to teach high school physics when I’m finished. When I say no, they then assume I will go into either policy or teach at a teaching school. When I state that I would like to continue on in my research and maybe go into industry, many seem taken aback confused why I would want to do this. It wares on a person and I try to find solace in my research, but I can understand why some women may choose to either go into other fields. I do believe that it is slowly getting better, but it is still a boys club.

November 2, 2011 at 9:39 am
(7) GI says:

hello, i would like to know how physics would help you in your future career?? :)

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