Where are all the women?

Charlotte Passot/Staff

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In 2010, only about 20 percent of students with bachelor’s degrees or doctorates in physics were women, lagging far behind biology, chemistry, math and earth sciences. Only 8 percent of full physics professors are women. To address this underrepresentation, UC Berkeley hosted the West Coast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics with more than 150 female students in attendance. In light of the press from the conference, I was asked to write about my experience as a woman in physics and why women in physics should stay in physics. I’d like to say now, before you read any further, that I am not here to tell women in physics to stay in physics. Women, I’m sure, are tired of being told what to do.

As supreme leader of UC Berkeley’s Society of Women in the Physical Sciences, and as the co-founder of an equivalent society at my alma mater, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to communicate effectively about the underrepresentation of women and minorities in physics. Scientists typically don’t respond well to anecdotal evidence, so I go straight for the published studies, for the plots and graphs. In short, I’ve learned to be a physicist about “the issue of women in physics.”

But for you, I’ll step out of my usual habit and tell some stories. During my first-ever research project, I was presenting a problem and a possible solution in a group meeting. A senior professor listened carefully and helpfully suggested, “Well honey, have you tried …” followed by precisely what I had just described. All he successfully managed to communicate was, “You’re a chick, and I wasn’t listening.” While I can joke about it now, the “honey” incident tied my self-doubt about my capabilities to my gender for the first time. As a senior, my friends assured me I would be accepted to graduate school because I’m a girl. As a first-year graduate student, new friends told me the same about the National Science Foundation grant. I achieved both, but my friends’ presumptions made those accomplishments feel less my own.

Along the way, I thought seriously about leaving physics. But being unnaturally stubborn (a trait that shouldn’t be required for a physics degree), I kept pushing aside the thoughts that I didn’t belong in a physics lab, that I wasn’t equipped to succeed. Almost a year after my encounter with Professor Patronize, another professor told me that other universities have these “women in physics groups” and that there are studies on “gender bias.” At the time, I was extremely suspicious of groups specifically for women. I was brought up believing I could accomplish anything my male peers could. I didn’t need special treatment; I had merit! This same belief made me previously dismiss the notion of gender bias, especially in the sacred halls of science — science, after all, is underpinned by the notion that meritocracy rules and special treatment drools. But this professor said there were scientific studies. So with my trust in science and a healthy dose of skepticism, I started on my literature search.

I learned about stereotype threat, gender norms, impostor syndrome, implicit bias and other sneaky sociocultural influences, and it changed everything. My total blindness to these phenomena, so crucial to navigating my field, was at once mind-blowing and rage-inducing and brilliantly liberating. Gender really does matter! Why had no one told me? I was not imagining things! And so to engage with this systematic disadvantage, I founded the University of Chicago’s Society of Women in Physics and have been women-in-physics-ing ever since.

These studies, while incredibly powerful to me personally, should not only be read by women. The issue of women in physics is not a “women’s issue.” Similarly, the underrepresentation of minorities in the sciences is not a problem for minorities to solve alone. These are issues of science and anyone who cares about science. A 2012 study sent out two sets of curricula vitae, identical except for the applicant’s name. Research faculty in biology, physics and chemistry consistently rated the “female applicant” lower than the “male applicant.” Application-reviewers, regardless of their age, gender, tenure status and discipline, rejected highly qualified candidates based on their gender. This is a disaster for science. If we do nothing, if we don’t talk often and loudly about the underrepresentation of women and minorities in science and the contributing factors thereof, we are undermining the idea of academic and scientific integrity. If we do nothing to try and correct the situation, we do a disservice to society.

Knowing about these issues is a first step. Building your knowledge base is a good second. If you’d like a quick way to learn more: my talk at the 2014 CUWiP on campus can be found on the UC Berkeley CUWiP website. All of the references used are listed on the slides for further reading. If you’d like to be more active and get involved with outreach, there are several fantastic student organizations at UC Berkeley. You can learn more about the outreach that SWPS does on our website or learn about several other programs at the UC Berkeley Public Service Center website.

SWPS website:  http://bit.ly/1fiqrsM

UC Berkeley Public Service Center website: http://bit.ly/MmyFG2

For more information on this topic: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103198913737




Katayun Kamdin is a third-year graduate student in physics at UC Berkeley and supreme leader of the Society for Women in the Physical Sciences.

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