Friday links: the gender and enrollment gap

A recent New York Times article asks: why are there still so few women in science?  Despite growing awareness of a gender gap in the sciences and concerted efforts to support women and minorities to pursue careers in science, progress is slow. Cultural biases seem soaked deep in to the psyches of hiring committees. Even more surprising, it’s not just the “old boys club” that perceives women differently; women themselves unconsciously devalue the work of female researchers:

Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. Surprisingly, female scientists were as biased as their male counterparts.

Only 20% of physics PhDs in this country are awarded to women. And, given some of the stories recounted by current students in the article, it’s hardly surprising why. High school and college faculty stubbornly persist in the illusion that “girls don’t do physics”.

In one physics class, the teacher announced that the boys would be graded on the “boy curve,” while the one girl would be graded on the “girl curve”; when asked why, the teacher explained that he couldn’t reasonably expect a girl to compete in physics on equal terms with boys.

Before the gender gap can be closed, it seems a significant cultural shift is in order. Read more here.


A second article, this one from Inside Higher Ed, looks at a different gap: the one between physics enrollment and other majors. New guidelines at the University of Southern Maine insist that any department graduating fewer than five students a year should be closed or severely reorganized. And Maine isn’t alone. Similar rules in Texas have led to the closure of six of its twenty four undergraduate physics programs. Despite faculty pleas that physics is a fundamental science that funnels students in to a wide range of other science and engineering disciplines, administrators argue that low enrollment numbers do not reflect the major’s perceived value. And that fault may lie with the physics community itself:

Program closures should “signal” to the discipline “that a physics major should be seen as a responsibility, not an entitlement,” [Nobel-prize-winning physicist Carl] Wieman said. “I think the outrage expressed by the physics community when things like this happen, or the dropping of physics programs at schools in Texas due to low enrollment, is misplaced. The concerns should be directed inward, not outward.”

In Texas, the closures are hitting minorities particularly hard. Two of the closed departments come from historically black undergraduate colleges. With minorities severely underrepresented in physics programs, every department counts.

The solution may lie with the departments themselves. Faculty need to recognize that it is their responsibility to sell the department to incoming students. Departments where the faculty take an active interest in student engagement tend to do better than those who do not:

“What [the SPIN-UP] study found was the departments and faculty in those highly successful schools felt a clear responsibility to recruit students to major in physics and make sure they were happy and successful after they became majors,” [Wieman] said in an e-mail. “The physics faculty in the comparison schools always saw the number of physics majors as someone else’s problem and responsibility.”

Read more here.

If you’re a woman, what has been your experience as a physics or astronomy major? Do any of the stories in the New York Times article resonate with you?

Faculty, how do you see your department falling on the SPIN-UP spectrum? How does your department handle student recruitment and subsequent mentoring? Let’s hear it in the comments!


1 comment… add one
  • anonymous Oct 16, 2013 @ 11:48

    I thought this website was about “tips and tricks”? There are other blogs to go to for more general commentary on the state of the field, and I suspect they would welcome a contribution like this.

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