Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

Renee Ahern, Christina Hanks, Anita Vincent-Johnson, Liz Visosky, and Nora Swisher attended the Southeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (SCUWP) at the University of Tennessee, January 12-15, 2012.  Here's what Nora says about the experience.                   

Over the long weekend we got to attend talks from successful women in physics, present our own research, interact with other women in physics over free meals, and listen to panels discussing careers, grad school, and undergraduate research.  We also got to tour Oak Ridge National Laboratory and see some of the incredible resources there, like the Spallation Neutron Source and their supercomputing facility. This is actually the 2nd year I’ve attended this conference (Anita and I went to it at Duke University in 2010). I thought both trips were great experiences. SCUWP and other women in physics events provide the opportunity for young women to network and gain motivation and support to continue physics.

It is not O.K. that there are so few women in physics in the United States. Because of societal cues given to us our whole lives, women tend to have more self-doubt in their STEM abilities, and people have internal bias against women in STEM fields whether they realize it or not (women need to higher credentials in order to be judged as equally productive as men). To fix this we need the current women in physics to stay and continue breaking the mold. We need role models and mentors for young women, and we need to keep improving the climate by continuing to have good family policies, flexible schedules, and speaking out when colleagues make inappropriate comments. As an anecdote, I have experienced some inappropriate conversations, although the men probably did not realize it was uncomfortable for me. Once during a class, the professor and students discussed a system to rate female physical attractiveness. That might not have happened in class with a different female student ratio.
Although, women have some equalities (equal pay not being one of them), women still have many stereotypes to overcome. Unfortunately some of these stereotypes are preventing physics from gaining all the contributions that women and other minorities have to offer. I know it’s a subtle and difficult problem to fix, but it should be fixed before we can call our society truly equal, developed, and rational.