Fixing the leaky pipeline: Women in the physical sciences

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Thirty-three years after earning her doctorate in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley, Frances Arnold won the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry — making her the fifth female laureate out of 180 recipients in the prize’s history.

Two of the five Nobel Prizes, established in 1895, are in the physical sciences: physics and chemistry. Chemistry has the higher percentage of female laureates — 2.8% — while physics reaches only 1.4%, with three female awardees among 206 men.

While these numbers may be disappointingly low, most women studying or working in the physical sciences would probably not be surprised by them. The physical science community has grown to include many more female-identifying voices since the inception of the Nobel Prize, but there unfortunately is still a considerable gender gap in academia.

As UC Berkeley celebrates its 150th year of admitting female students, it’s important to discuss the presence female scientists have had on campus — not only in recognition of their achievements, but also to showcase the vast improvements that have been made for women in the physical sciences, as well as the work that remains to be done.

This 150-year anniversary provides ample opportunity to improve the gender gap that exists in the sciences, and UC Berkeley still has a large amount of distance to cover.

Women make up 42% of the undergraduate chemistry department at UC Berkeley, 33% of the astrophysics department and only 24% of the physics department. Only 18% of the hires to the physical science departments from 2013-17 have been women, and there are only 11 female lecturers in the physics department.

Representation plays such an important role in encouraging the next generation to pursue opportunities in competitive fields that are traditionally devoid of diversity. Although UC Berkeley began admitting female students in 1870, the number of female physics faculty members has remained critically low, especially in tenured positions.

Representation plays such an important role in encouraging the next generation to pursue opportunities in competitive fields that are traditionally devoid of diversity.

The first female physics instructor on campus wasn’t hired until 1981; Mary K. Gaillard, a major contributor to particle physics research, was also the first woman to receive tenure in the physics department.

Beyond the barrier of slow-moving progress, women in the physical science departments on campus also experienced outright discrimination. At the time of Elizabeth Scott’s research employment in the 1940s, women were not allowed access to the astronomy department’s larger telescopes, including those at the Mount Wilson Observatory. Although she received both her bachelor’s degree and her doctorate from UC Berkeley’s astronomy department, Scott switched her focus to mathematical research as it offered more opportunities.

UC Berkeley’s Society of Women in the Physical Sciences, or SWPS, is an organization that supports both undergraduate and graduate students in astronomy, chemistry, physics and earth and atmospheric sciences.

The society offers outreach opportunities and mentorship programs, and its website describes its community as friendly and supportive, welcoming “all who experience life through the lens of woman in body, spirit, identity – past, present, future and fluid.”

In an interview with Ruhee Nirodi, head coordinator of SWPS and a senior studying physics and astrophysics, she discussed the society’s work as well as good and bad aspects of the environment for women on campus.

“You can find your own little group of like-minded women in your department,” Nirodi said. “It’s a way to get to know the other women in your department and to give everyone at all levels of academia the same tools to succeed.”

UC Berkeley’s physical science departments have made positive efforts in supporting gender diversity, and diversity at large, within their student communities. The departments work to be receptive to student voices through faculty-supported action committees.

The action committees cover areas of interest beyond gender inclusivity and are composed of undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty. Once a semester, all the student groups meet to informally discuss issues that need to be addressed.

“It’s a way to get to know the other women in your department and to give everyone at all levels of academia the same tools to succeed.” — Ruhee Nirodi

“The important thing is they have students actually talking about their experiences, and the professors also talk about their experiences and what they can and cannot do,” Nirodi explained. “It’s good to have both sides of that and be able to just talk about realistic options for fixing some of these problems.”

When asked about her own experiences on campus as a female physical scientist, Nirodi spoke to the many positive and negative ways the climate at UC Berkeley has affected her.

She described herself as both lucky and unlucky: On one hand she has found a solid friend group within the physics department, but on the other hand, each and every one of these friends is male. True friendship can transcend almost any boundary, but it can still feel isolating to be the odd one out. 

“Before I even got to Berkeley, every single person who knew that I wanted to apply to the physics major told me, ‘Don’t do it, no one is going to respect you, everyone is going to talk down to you,’ and that was not my experience at all,” Nirodi said.

A lot of young women interested in the physical sciences will hear similar things throughout their education. This has led to a large number of female students giving up on their pursuit of a particular subject altogether once they enter college — an effect known as the “leaky pipeline.”

The number of men and women entering the physical sciences is very similar, but women are much more likely to leave. The leaky pipeline describes this phenomenon and asks the question: Why is science losing women?

“We need to stop perpetuating this idea that we’re going to have it rough because we’re women,” Nirodi said. “Instead of treating everything as a warning sign, try promoting resources for if that worse-case scenario happens.”

By supporting young women in science through mentorship and positive representation, we can destroy the idea that these fields are inherently difficult to access for women. When fewer women are intimidated away from pursuing a career in the physical sciences, we can continue to build learning environments that value diverse voices.

Although progress may sometimes feel slow, we have steadily been moving forward in these 150 years of powerful female presence on campus. Women continue to break barriers and change the face of the physical sciences here at UC Berkeley and on a global scale. As Gaillard said to a room of young female scientists in regard to the challenges she faced, “You just need to love physics enough, to let it be a true passion for you and keep dismissing all that.”

Contact Megan Sousa at [email protected].