Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Status Quo of Women in Physics

As we approach November 8th, many people are thinking about the fact that the United States could have its very first female president.  Looking back within the past few decades, we can see just how much has changed for women in a short amount of time.

In 1966, only about 40% of college graduates were women.  This number has been growing ever since, and women ages 24-35 now hold more bachelor’s degrees than men in the same age group. It appears that the pendulum of the gender gap has swung to be in women’s favor.  However, looking at all college graduates does not take into account the very different tracks of study that men and women seem to gravitate towards.

According to the American Physical Society (APS), the male-to-female ratio for physics bachelor’s degrees has remained stagnant for nearly twenty years.   In 1998 about 21% of physics bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women.  This number reached a maximum in 2002 at about 23%.  For 2013, The most recent year for which the APS has data, women earned only 20% of physics bachelor’s degrees.

Compared with the APS national data, the JMU Department of Physics & Astronomy seems pretty typical.  In May 2016, about 21% of graduates were female. What can our department do to change the status quo?

We already have Women in Physics meetings every semester, which is especially beneficial to underclassmen.   Being new to the department can be intimidating, and getting to know a few upperclassmen and faculty members can definitely help new students to feel welcome.

Each January, the APS holds regional conferences for female undergraduates. The Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) is an amazing resource. It is a great opportunity to hear the inspiring stories of some amazing scientists (who happen to be women), as well as to be exposed to roles within physics and the larger scientific community that you may not have learned about otherwise.   Students also get to meet other female physics majors from other institutions near JMU.

Ultimately it is up to an individual to decide whether physics is right for her. What’s important is that those who end up switching majors don’t do so because they feel disadvantaged by gender. 

The bigger challenge, to our entire society, is to look at causes of such gender gaps in fields such as physics.  The National Science Foundation (NSF), states that boys and girls in fourth grade are almost equally interested in science.    By the time they reach eighth grade, boys are more than twice as likely to be interested in science.   What happens in those years between?

From a young age, girls are often taught to focus on different things than boys. For example, a side by side comparison of Girls’ Life and Boys’ Life magazines had parents outraged in that the magazine geared towards boys had a cover that features many science and engineering related objects, with the byline “Discover Your Future,” while the magazine geared towards girls focused on the latest fashion trends, hair tips, etc.  There is nothing wrong with a girl being more interested in fashion, but why do are girls taught to focus on this more than boys? Science should not be geared towards a single gender.

There’s another huge factor many people ignore when discussing diversity in fields like physics: positive experiences in math and science classes are not all that common. When I tell a non-science person that I’m studying physics, there’s a pretty good chance that they will tell me how much they hated math or physics in school. Why is stating hatred towards math and science so accepted?

This is one of the reasons it is so important that our department supports those students who are considering a path in secondary education. If more high school students have positive physics learning experiences, more of them will continue on to pursue physics at an undergraduate level.

High school is still pretty late in the game to be pushing students towards a love of science and math, especially if these students already have had negative experiences that shape their view on the subject. The best way to encourage diversity, of all kinds, is to start from the bottom. This means encouraging in all children— regardless of gender— a love of science, and curiosity about the world, from an early age, and continuing that encouragement throughout adolescence. 

Maybe this means finding or creating more outreach programs for students that are science-focused, geared towards young students in middle school.  Maybe, it means challenging the stereotypes about women in science.

Whatever the approach, women in science should be supported now, and for the future, we should teach all children to love science.