administration · physics · scholarships · slow academy

Women in Physics: the 13%

One of the best parts of my job is helping students prepare their applications for major scholarships: the Fulbright, the Rhodes, the Vanier, the Trudeau. I’ve spent the last seven years in grad school learning how to identify and write to generic expectations, and it’s very rewarding to help students see that research proposals are a genre, with very specific expectations, and then help them master that genre. And as someone who often daydreams about what life would be like if I had decided to study in a wildly different field, it’s a ball getting to read brilliant and exciting research proposals from students in mathematics, or visual art, or architecture, or chemistry, or theoretical physics.

It was a moment when working through a proposal from that last field that recently gave me pause. The application was written by perhaps the smartest student I’ve yet encountered, one who has gotten an A+ in every single graduate course she has ever taken, and yet has managed to find time to also be a gifted athlete and a committed volunteer. She also happens to be a woman, and a woman in the field with perhaps the worst track record for gender equity; as the American Institute of Physics notes, “women make up about 13% of faculty members in all degree-granting physics departments, and there are physics departments with no women faculty members at all.” This is in stark contrast to my discipline–according to a 2009 report by the MLA, women make up 43.3% of faculty at the rank of professor in the modern languages, and 67.4% of the faculty at the rank of associate professor. In a meeting with a number of people involved in putting together her scholarship application, we were discussing the goals this outstanding student wanted to set out for the tenure of her award. As part of her leadership statement, which asked students to set out goals quite distinct from their research project, one of the students’ goals was to institute a mentorship program for female students in her department, providing them with additional support and guidance in order to improve the chances that they would stay and succeed in the field. When someone suggested that the student might want to consider emphasizing her plans for this seemingly very necessary work, or expand the scope of what she might accomplish in regards to promoting gender equality in physics, a female senior physics scholar called a stop. “I don’t,” she said, “want this student to emphasize that she is a woman in physics.” 

And my question was–why not? 

I’ve been trying to figure out the motivation behind that statement, and what it says about the state of gender equality in physics, or in the hard sciences more generally. Was the senior scholar concerned that the student would face discrimination as a woman in physics during the judgement of her scholarship application, and so wanted to downplay her gender? Did she feel like the student’s interest in promoting equality and in nurturing younger students was unscholarly? Did she feel that working toward gender equality in her field was unnecessary, or futile? Why not write an application that forced readers, some of whom might carry the biases that have led women to be so outnumbered in physics, to acknowledge that women are of the best and brightest in the field? And that proposed real ways to start challenging those biases and inequities? 

I’m pretty much of the belief that whatever we can do to promote gender equality, wherever we can do it, however we can do it, we should do it. But–sure, I come from the same field as David Gilmour, but that’s also a field where the vast majority of undergraduate students are women, and the majority of faculty are too. It must be a very different world, being part of the 13%. 

What say you, dear readers? Where have you met resistance to challenging gender inequality from the women in your field? Any ideas where that resistance comes from, or what we can do to combat it?  

13 thoughts on “Women in Physics: the 13%

  1. OMG, where to start. Before I say anything more, I spent all my graduate student years actively serving my Gender Issues Committee in the Department of Physics. Combined with my later difficulties in getting a tenure-stream position, the end result was Gender Issues Burnout.

    I assume the student was writing a *research* proposal where the primary research objective was physics research. If so, then including a mentorship program for women in physics is not appropriate, by the standards of the field, to include as a research activity. Why? Because such mentorship is not a formal physics research activity. (It *does* fit in the growing field of physics education research.)

    I can understand the senior physics researcher making the call that she did. I agree with her. NSERC research (or scholarship) proposals (which I'm procrasting on writing now) are judged on Excellence of researcher, merit of proposal, training of HQP (highly qualified personnel — a science and tech thing???).

    Gender is not a variable in this funding formula.


  2. Aldona, this was in the context of a leadership statement, where the student had to set out goals not for research (which she did in a separate document), but the leadership role she was going to undertake in her department. The mentorship program was totally appropriate, and indeed ideal, in that context, so that wasn't the issue. So…how does that affect our response?


  3. And I'm also very curious to hear about your “Gender Issues Burnout”–I'm coming from a totally different disciplinary perspective, obviously, and I'm very interested in the experiences of women in STEM fields.


  4. Gender Issues Burnout is a term that, to the best of my knowledge, I came up with on the day when I realized that I have gone from being bright eyed and bushy tailed to disenchanted, disenfranchised and disinterested.

    The 13% gets to you, in very real ways. It makes you feel like you shouldn't be there. It makes you sexist (I constantly struggle with my own sexism, which ranges from simply expecting more glorious things and better advice from my male colleagues, to giving a snarky look to the woman displaying excellent alignment and power next to me in yoga).

    About the application: what is the applicant's position in the department going to be: student or faculty? If student, then running a mentorship program is more acceptable. If faculty, then less so. Why? Because you can do childish things when you're a child, but not when you grow up. FULL SARCASM ON.

    Women who make it in physics have to have blinders on, to a large extent, and they tend to make it by swimming upstream, HARD. (True of other fields, I guess.) I think many women in physics would say that it's best to fake it until you make it. Don't rock the boat (sad, but that's what having women in physics can be likened to) until you're tenured. I do believe this is also the philosophy of the formidable and fierce Ms. Mentor, who dispenses advice on such matters from an Ivory Tower in the land of the Humanities.

    It's all connected: don't play the gender card, don't say you're a feminist. I'm oversimplifying, but I think it would take a mind meld to convey the visceral emotions that this topic stirs in me, when I allow myself to think about it.


  5. Oh, and the chief thing about GIB (Gender Issues Burnout) is that IT TAKES YOUR ENERGY AWAY FROM WHAT YOU LIKE TO DO — Physics. Or whatever your field is. It's personally easier to ignore gender imbalance — in the short term anyway, until you start getting judged with bias when it comes to tenure and promotion and salary increases.


  6. This is a really interesting conversation, not simply because of this particular issue (a student needing to hide her feminism or contribution to women in the academy) but also because it has happens in many different ways.

    The problem, to put it simply, is that if particular kinds of women's work is not considered valuable work by those adjudicating that work, it can affect the outcome of that particular application.

    By extension, when feminist work is unrecognized, or even treated with hostility in a field, it is not wise to highlight it.

    This of course creates a double-bind for us feminists: attempting to gain recognition for the value of ALL our work whilst simultaneously needing to hide particular kinds of work in order to gain recognition for the other traditional and conventional work that we do. Complicated, and messy, and unfortunate. But at this point, I'd argue it's necessary.

    Necessary because I'd rather have this particular student recognized for most of her work, than run the risk of not being recognized for any of it simply because the adjudicating committee is biased against one particular (feminist) kind of work. And because maybe this female student will help alter ratios of women in physics, and then be part of a movement to actually recognize the value of all kinds of women's work.

    I mean, this has been my personal perspective when it comes to listing my maternity leave on my CV. It's not recognized as work by the academy, so why would I run the risk of having adjudicating committees be biased against me by putting it on? Wouldn't it be better to succeed, and then work myself to change attitudes within the academy?

    There are all kinds of problems with this perspective, of course. I'm interested to hear other people's opinions about this.


  7. Hi Jana, I agree with your perspective of succeeding first, then making changes to the academy. In Physics, I am already taking feminist action just by BEING there, all by my lonesome.

    I also agree that it is complicated, messy, and highly case dependent. I, too, do not list maternity on my CV, however, as I apply for funding, there are areas for explanatory notes, and I DEFINITELY explain that I was off on maternity there. More than that, I've even stated that I had a “Study Leave” when I did a B.Ed. because there were zero tenure-track positions within commuting distance of my spouse's tenured position in 5 years. Sob story? I think decreasingly LESS SO as more and more younger faculty get on judging committees.

    This is progress, I think. (I'll let you know how the grant applications turn out in March.)


  8. *increasingly LESS SO? Too. Many. Words. I mean to say that I think that stories like mine are starting to become judged less harshly by the increasing number of (still mostly male) judges who have academically or otherwise professionally employed spouses (mostly wives).


  9. 'Forcing people to confront' things when they're reading your scholarship application is a great way for them not to want to give you money, surely? Point out the flaw in their department or discipline > make them feel uncomfortable > suddenly they come up with co-incidental, not gendered at all, reasons not to fund you.


  10. Do people – women or men – generally not list parental leave on their CVs? Does the same hold for other kinds of leaves (or only with professionally sanctioned – research/sabbatical – and not personal – parental/illness/unpaid)? I'm genuinely curious; I always thought I should just give a clear list accounting for where I've been each year.


  11. HKHClaire: this is an ongoing problem for grant applications, and for trying to define sensible tenure policies, for instance. Not listing the parental leave isn't usually an option b/c evaluations of grant applications and tenure files involve looking at the rate of output, so extra years looks like a lower rate. Alas, sensible policies don't solve all problems until attitudes change in the profession, and weird side effects can be detected … one that I had occasion to look into for a working group on my campus a couple of years back concerned the practice of extending the tenure clock for a year for each child born (or adopted) while a parent is on the tenure clock. An excellent idea, but in some ways it pushes differential treatment by gender back one step. Some fathers (who must not be the primary caregiver) use the extra year to rack up a whole pile of extra publications. So some referees look at the dossiers of mothers or more involved fathers and say “well, this person had an extra year, and doesn't have much to show for it, unlike the ambitious Professor Bloggs whose tenure file I read last year..” (Interestingly, arguably, the worst off in the mix would be fathers who use parental leave to be, you know, parental … they might well confront the assumption that they were not the primary caregiver, so the extra year really was a year that could have been spent on research. So that's not really the group of people we want to punish, either.) Maybe a rule that publications generated during leave don't count would help?


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