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?