The evident under-representation of women in physics has broad implications, particularly for industries and government agencies that need technically educated staff. Quite simply, the global scientific workforce is failing to use a large fraction of its talent pool. The shortage of female physicists in academia exacerbates the situation, in that female students lack role models in the field. Of course, the nature and magnitude of the problem varies from country to country.
But what is remarkably consistent is that the percentage of women in physics in all countries decreases markedly with each step up the academic ladder and with each level of promotion in industrial and national laboratories. The result is a dearth of women among physicists in leadership positions worldwide. Women are also poorly represented among physicists in decision-making roles in top research institutes, funding agencies, professional societies and government.
Yet women who do reach these top positions seem to command as much respect as their male peers – and sometimes even more. So how has this situation arisen? In her book Why So Slow? : The Advancement of Women (1998 MIT Press), the psychologist Virginia Valian discusses the roles of what she calls “gender schemas” and “the accumulation of advantage and disadvantage”. As she writes: “A set of implicit, or nonconscious, hypotheses about sex differences plays a central role in shaping men and women’s professional lives.
These hypotheses, which I call gender schemas, affect our expectations of men and women, our evaluations of their work, and their performance as professionals. ” Valian argues that small differences in the evaluation and treatment of men and women hold up the glass ceiling. “A useful concept in sociology is the accumulation of advantage and disadvantage. It suggests that, like interest on capital, advantages accrue, and that, like interest on debt, disadvantages also accumulate. Very small differences in treatment can, as they pile up, result in large disparities in salary, promotion and prestige.
It may sound like a tautology, but the way to encourage women in physics is to have more women. More women means more female peers, more female role models, more mentors and more networks. In my own career of more than 40 years in academia and government, I have observed that the greater the number of women in a department or laboratory, the better they tend to fare – because, as Valian points out, “they are less likely to be perceived in terms of their gender and more in terms of their qualifications”.
Why we must change There are three reasons why we must care and take action. First, it is good for the health of the field. If the profession is to serve its goal of advancing and disseminating the knowledge of physics, the profession must draw on the widest possible spectrum of talented individuals – the best and the brightest from all segments of society. The second reason is equity. Scientists have the rare privilege of earning their living by doing what they most enjoy.
They are rewarded with intellectual satisfaction and an opportunity to use their skills and energy to make a difference in the world. Women have the right, the need and the talent to compete for these rewards. Third, if science and technology are to fulfil their potential, we must make it our goal to achieve a scientifically literate society that understands and values the contributions that science can make to our wellbeing. Women are half of that population.
Only when women see that they are participating fully in scientific endeavour – as scientific leaders, policy makers and laboratory researchers – will they feel equal partners in a technological society. While women in positions of authority in physics have a special duty to show their commitment, women early in their careers must take responsibility for seeking information, focusing their efforts, negotiating and building power. Yet for some time to come, it will be mainly men who are hiring, promoting, evaluating and rewarding physicists at all stages in their careers.
It therefore falls on the male supervisors – as well as the women – to create a climate in which everyone is treated equitably, without bias or favouritism. But the single most important factor in increasing the participation of women in physics may well be the commitment and support of top management. Indeed, this factor can in some cases be enough on its own. Credible, supportive and informed managers have an opportunity to instill their values throughout an organization. They can institute objective criteria for evaluation.
They can endorse and promote competent women, and they can increase opportunities for management-track assignments. Conference issues These issues will all be addressed this month in Paris, at the international conference on women in physics, sponsored by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) (see Physics needs women). Conference resolutions will be directed at men and women alike, at schools, universities, scientific societies, governments, granting agencies and at IUPAP itself.
They will address key elements for success, such as access to research funding and facilities, the availability of child-care facilities and flexible work schedules, and – in the case of universities – freedom from excessive teaching and service responsibilities. To ensure that women have an equal opportunity for positions of governance, the resolutions will suggest ways of including more women on key policy committees, editorial boards, national-planning and review committees, and also conference-organizing committees.
Scientific and professional societies will also be encouraged to collect and make available statistical data on the participation of women in physics at all levels. The conference – the first of its kind ever to be held – is a unique opportunity for women from the international community of physicists to exchange ideas and experiences. It is hoped that the networks and strategies that they develop in Paris will prove to be a continuing resource to them as they work to increase the opportunities for women in physics in their own countries.